When Helen Macdonald’s father dies suddenly, she falls into a deep depression. Bewildered, she returns to her lifelong passion for falconry by training a goshawk. Unlike typical raptor trainers, Helen is far from wealthy. She lives in a small rented house in Cambridge, where she decides to train Mabel, her new bird of prey, in the front room, with the curtains drawn.
As she says in an interview,
If this had been the 17th century, I would have been totally unremarkable. Everyone was walking around with hawks.
Of course, there were a lot of other things that were totally unremarkable in the 17th century, such as bloodletting and witch hunts.
H is for Hawk tells the story of this tragic year in her life, where she battles with an overwhelming sense of sorrow. Sometimes this gets all too much as the book lurches into overwritten, self-indulgent introspection.
And me? I feel hollow and unhoused, an airy, empty wasp’s nest, a thing made of chewed paper after the frosts have murdered the life within.
Part of this memoir is also a potted history of T.H.White, the author of The Once and Future King. White was also a falcon hobbyist (pun intended), whose sadistic tendencies come in for some justified criticism by Macdonald.
However, just like White, Macdonald has a bloodsoaked relationship with the natural world. Birds of prey need meat, and that means that she spends a lot of time hunting with her hawk. She is not one to let nature run its natural course. At one point, a rabbit escapes her bird, so she decides to drag the poor creature out of its burrow for the goshawk to devour. We are treated to some serious crocodile tears on her behalf as she throws the rabbit to its doom.
Struggling to deal with her grief over her father’s death, Macdonald has developed a tight, not to say weird, relationship with her bird of prey. Thankfully, being a poet as well as a naturalist, her clear love for Mabel is the source for some sparkling nature writing.
the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes.
She also has the gift of entering the bird’s world:
I have three different receptor-sensitivities in my eyes: red, green and blue. Hawks, like other birds, have four. This hawk can see colours I cannot, right into the ultraviolet spectrum. She can see polarised light, too, watch thermals of warm air rise, roil, and spill into clouds, and trace, too, the magnetic lines of force that stretch across the earth.
Macdonald is a classic British eccentric, doing something incredible with few more resources than any other ordinary person might have. Her adventures take place in suburbia where our world and the wild places meet. The upshot of this is that H is for Hawk is a welcome opportunity to see the world through new eyes.