Before reading this book I knew very little of the life of TH White, acclaimed author of The Sword in the Stone (1938) and schoolmaster at Stowe for many years. He is a central character in Helen Macdonald’s story, for he was a trainer of hawks, and published The Goshawk, with a mixed reception, in 1951. Macdonald read this psychologically complex work at the age of just eight, as part of her childhood obsession with all things hawk, an obsession that she never really overcame.
H is for Hawk, first published by Jonathan Cape in 2014, is a lesson in dealing with grief, the complexities that come with it and the tangible pain that is generated both during and afterwards. We learn that Macdonald has lost her father, a talented photographer and journalist, and she retreats from the world. At the same time her world appears to retreat from her. She is on the cusp of losing her academic job as well as her home in Cambridge. Her grief also makes it difficult to gain traction in her relationships, and she worries that she is pushing people away. She becomes anxious and is prescribed anti-depressants. She attempts to fill the gap in her life with Mabel, a young Goshawk, who she buys for £800 on a Scottish quayside.
This beautifully constructed book is just as much about Mabel and her animality as it is about Macdonald and her reflection on humanity. Mabel’s non-human identity is paramount to the story and yet Macdonald is able to construct some form of relationship with her. It is not the usual relationship that you might have with a dog or a cat or indeed with a badger or a pied wagtail. Hawks are creatures that lie on the periphery between the domestic and the wild. To experience the relationship between a hawk and their trainer is to experience the fringes of humanity and animality. It is an escape from modernity, a push back to the past, and yet hawking remains an entirely timeless activity that is both romantic and distinctly earthy and painful.
The book tells the story of Macdonald’s training of Mabel, her frustrations and anxiety drawn through their shared experiences and the complex relationship that is constructed between them. We are introduced to the language of raptor training and the bloody, gutty reality of hawking as an activity; the blood, the death, the bating and beating wings.
Alongside Macdonald’s experience with Mabel we learn about White and his hawk, known as Gos. White was respected and adored by his students and yet in reality he was a sadist and fantasised about spanking adolescent boys, although he never acted on his thoughts. However, we are told about his monstrous battles of domination with Gos, as he tries to subdue her in training. The relationship between White and the reader is difficult to cultivate and reflect upon. Despite being occasionally severely troubled by his rhetoric and behaviour, it remains impossible not to recognise his loneliness and isolation. This is certainly felt by Macdonald, and it troubles her. She finds it impossible not to draw similarities between White’s life and her own.
There is a huge amount of emotion within the pages and the narrative is composed with the feeling of a thriller, all consuming and emotionally draining. Indeed, it is never entirely clear what will happen next, for Macdonald, Mabel, White or Gos.
On several occasions I found myself with a deep lump in my throat, wanting to hold out my hands to Macdonald and reassure her that her future will be brighter. It’s a reminder of how helpless we feel when someone we know is troubled or depressed. We want to reach out and help them, but we often don’t know how to. We have all experienced dark times, some worse than others, but no matter how prepared we may feel for when they come, when we descend into them the struggle is always palpable; the darkness all consuming. When it is someone other than ourselves experiencing it, somehow it feels worse, more difficult to overcome. We are an observer in their grief, a seemingly impossible position to manage.
As sombre as this book is, I was surprised and relieved for it to finish with a flurry of optimism, as Macdonald leaves Mabel in the safety of a hawk expert based in Suffolk for her spring moult.
H is for Hawk is highly deserving of all of the accolades and praise that it has amounted since its publication in 2014. Macdonald is a literary genius who has that rare ability to connect with readers on a human level, whilst reminding us of the importance of the wild and of animality in the world. This book goes beyond a simple appeal for good nature writing. It is an exploration of self, grief, humanity and animality and is all in all an exceptional and very special book.