Or: the book that gave me the shits, but I had to keep reading it anyway.
H is for Hawk is the autobiographical story of Helen Macdonald and her goshawk, Mabel, whom she buys as a way to deal with her grief after her father dies. The story is interspersed with Macdonald’s study of author T. H. White’s The Goshawk and how that reflects her own training of her animal.
This book seemed to be on every Best Books to Read list for 2015, so I borrowed it from the library. From the start, I wanted to smack the author in the head. I get that her father died and that to deal with it, because she is a falconer, her thinking was ‘escape to the wilderness’ by being with the wild, and challenging herself by raising this difficult bird — despite everyone saying not to do it.
Okay, lady, but I hope you’re seeing a shrink, too, cos you are so spiralling down this path of self-destruction where isolating yourself in this obsessive need-to-do-this is just probably not the best way to do this. I get this was Macdonald’s journey, but OMG such self-involvement.
There’s a part in the story where she sees one of her good friends, who helps her with the goshawk, and she apologies for being preoccupied and distant, etc. and he says, You’ve just lost your father, and I’m like, Girlllll, listen to this man. You are not dealing with this. It’s like you took this bird and you don’t know why you’re still sad! This bird cannot help you if you do not deal with the other things in your life, you did not have to push everything else in your life away, this bird is not human and it cannot speak to you.
It must have been difficult for her friends and family to see her spiral into despair and obsessiveness even if it seemed like something that she just had to do, the kind of thing where you think it’s not the best idea but you gotta let your friend go through with it anyway.
Which leads me to reason number one why I kept reading. I wanted to see if Mabel was still alive at the end of the book. I was afraid this woman’s grief — and use of this bird to deal with it struck me as completely unfair to this animal — would kill Mabel. Fortunately somewhere towards the end of the book, Macdonald realises that she needs help, and that she needs more than just the bird, and that her actions are affecting it, so she seeks help and moves forward.
The book is interspersed with reflections on T. H. White’s life and his book The Goshawk, which is basically a what not to do when you decide you want to get your own goshawk (or any animal for that matter). White sounded like a complete ass. Yes, he had an abusive childhood and was sadly repressed, but he didn’t appear to treat people well and was singleminded in his meanness. These parts of the book read like a thesis. I felt like this was some kind of comparative literature bit where White’s journey paralleled Macdonald’s in dealing with grief and self. I got bored and skimmed these parts. I know they were meant to add value to the story, but White gave me the shits. I just wanted to get past it.
What kept me reading ultimately — and I think why this book rates so highly on everyone’s best books list — is the rich prose and, well, the depiction of nature. I walked right with Macdonald through the wet, the woods, — I could be getting rained on in England the way she described everything:
from the open-air fourth floor I can stare at these fields. They run like a backbone across the horizon, scratched with copse-lines and damped with cloud-shadow… I feel I might be up there, because now the hill is home. I know it intimately. Every hedgerow, every track through dry grass where the hares cut across field-boundaries, each discarded piece of rusted machinery, every earth and warren and tree… The maritime light of this island, set as it is under a sky mirrored and uplit by sea… I don’t own this land. I’ve only got permission to fly here. But in walking it over and over again and paying it the greatest attention I have made it mine
Part of me is fascinated by falconry. It is interesting — a time-honoured tradition, a dying art, something cultural, and beautiful and fierce. But at the same time, we don’t need to hunt to live anymore. And it’s not like they falconers in the book are a tribe in Kazakhstan raising eagles to hunt and feed their families.
They’re just a bunch of (mostly) white people holding out their arms with birds to look cool. And they do look cool. Except these are wild animals, and they don’t need these people to live. They should be free, and not have jesses or hoods or whatever. They should moult in the woods, not in an aviary. They shouldn’t live in a house catching someone’s tissue paper balls. I didn’t feel that way before I read this book; now, I just think birds should live free.
Before I read H is for Hawk I had the impression it was some kind of a nature book with an Eat Pray Love journey and a redemptive Disney-style ending. Nup. Eat Pray Love didn’t come with a thesis, and none of the talking animals on Disney moult.
It is, in essence, a nature book with beautiful descriptions and interesting insight into falconry, I’ve learned more about goshawks than I ever thought I needed to, and they are amazing creatures. You also have to admire the effort and the guts it takes to raise and train one. But you have to be able to put up with the hard slog. The thesis bits and the sad bits and the self-destructive bits where you’re like, Girl, do you even know you’re doing that? If you can put up with that, or if you want to just read the nature bits, it is, in essence, a beautiful story of a girl and her hawk.
Content advisory: Animal in captivity used to indulge a human’s self-involvement.
Published by Penguin Random House.