H is for Hawk- Helen Macdonald.

This remarkable memoir has just won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2014. It is an account of the author’s experience of training a goshawk while grieving for her father, interlaced with a study of the writer T. H. White, who wrote ‘The Goshawk’ and ‘The Once and Future King’. I am going to call the author ‘Helen’ sometimes, and hope she or anyone else doesn’t mind the informality: this is an intensely personal memoir and while reading it I felt as if she was in the  next room, or training her hawk in the field below my house. Helen’s decision to train a goshawk is triggered by the death of her father and this is not as unusual a reaction to loss as one might think- she has been interested in hawks since reading ‘The Goshawk’ as a child and has trained hawks and falcons before. She cites Freud, who sees the 19th century fascination for falconry as an identification with the ‘masculine’ qualities of virility, strength and independence which falcons are seen to possess. By the process of ‘introjection’ the falconer can repossess those qualities himself/herself, as well as ‘civilising’ a wild creature. In the process of training Mabel ( the goshawk) we see Helen both identifying with the goshawk’s wild freedom and, aware of her separateness as a human being, training her. Both experiences, and many on the spectrum between, are described in intimate detail and entail a living in the moment, demand a sort of attention akin to mindfulness, blocking out distractions as here: ‘the hawk in flight, me running after her, the land and the air a pattern of deep and curving detail, sufficient to block out anything like the past and the future, so that the only thing that mattered were the next thirty seconds’. The author digresses from her account of training Mabel to discuss the history of falconry, its attraction for some because of its associations with the medieval age and, uncomfortably, Nazi ideology. She also includes some interesting but to me unknown facts : the hawk which is trained today looks identical to the hawk used in Ancient Egypt as it has not been domesticated and therefore bred for particular traits! I enjoyed these digressions which offer a different focus from the intensely personal narrative. The study of T.H. White, which runs throughout the book, also varies the focus: the writer contrasts his training of his goshawk with her own and in so doing, delves deeply into the complex personality of this sad and  lonely writer. I know of him through reading ‘The Once and Future King’ as a young teenager, a book which was for me one of those crossover books between childhood and adulthood, thin on the ground in those days. I was saddened to read about White’s unhappy childhood, his experience of cruelty and his consequent sadistic tendencies, which he struggled to control throughout his life. The author writes of this difficult subject matter with a thoughtful and respectful honesty: this is something, like the wild otherness of animals , which does exist in our world. The other main narrative is the writer’s account of her grief at losing her father. His personality is movingly evoked as she recalls him and there is a kind of thankfulness in her depiction of him, a plane spotter turned photojournalist, an observer, like Helen as a small child spying on others from the bushes and as an adult, describing her bird’s muscle movements in meticulous detail. The author describes the devastation of grief in all its stages and her recognition eventually of the feeling changing into something more akin to love. This is a profound account of loss.

Mariella Frostrup asked the question on  Radio 4’s Open Book this week, why do we like memoirs?  Are looking in them for an experience similar to our own, or for an experience of something different? The appeal of ‘H is for Hawk’ for me was that the book speaks to both these needs. In her account of family and loss set against  the everyday events of that period, the author speaks to all of us. Her account of taming Mabel, of the otherness of wild animals and the drive to engage with them, took me to a different place, which humans only visit occasionally, perhaps driven there by grief. It was a profoundly moving experience to read this book and touch that place.

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