My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’.
Here’s another word: raptor, meaning ‘bird of prey’. From the Latin raptor, meaning ‘robber,’ from rapere meaning ‘seize’. Rob. Seize. (Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk)
Here’s another word: Captivating. H is for Hawk held me captive with madness and love. Part claustrophobic memoir of grief, part luminous tribute to the sport of falconry, Helen Macdonald’s book is brilliant and tense. It is a story of fury and grace, recounted in pulsing, poetic language.
Helen’s father, a famous Fleet Street photographer, dies unexpectedly and Helen, a historian, poet, and experienced falconer, tumbles into the abyss. Retreating from the world, she seizes on the one thing she believes will keep her from being swallowed by grief: she will train a goshawk.
Goshawks are the Velociraptors of the raptor world, a hawk of the genus Accipter, not to be confused with its far more approachable and trainable cousin the falcon, of the genus Falco. Macdonald’s Czech-German goshawk, whom she purchases on a Scottish quayside for £800, is “a griffin from the pages of an illuminated bestiary”. The bird appears as a primordial creature, an ancient, disappeared thing rising from the half-life of history: “the lucency of her pale, round eyes… the waxy, yellow skin about her Bakelite-black beak… half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass”.
Macdonald names the goshawk Mabel, from the Latin amabilis, meaning “lovable” or “dear”. This is perhaps a hope that Macdonald projects onto the goshawk, for there is always a current of tension and violence running between woman and raptor, and Macdonald never takes for granted that this creature, who lives in her home and perches on her wrist, is built for murder.
Training a goshawk is a pressure cooker of isolation and suppressed emotion. The bird is hyper-sensitive to disturbances in its force field and in the early days Macdonald lives like a monk—barely eating or sleeping. She forgets she is human as she works to enter Mabel’s psyche and earn her trust. In this way, she shuts down her human mourning and becomes something feral. She feeds Mabel corpses of tiny birds. Gradually, she reenters the world, Mabel on her wrist. Raptor and woman learn to navigate the outside together, each wholly dependent on the other for cues and sustenance, one emotional, the other flesh.
H is for Hawk seduces the reader with the peculiar lexicon of falconry
As a child I’d cleaved to falconry’s disconcertingly complex vocabulary. In my old books every part of a hawk was named: wings were sails, claws pounces, tail a train. Male hawks are a third smaller than the female so they are called tiercels, from the Latin tertius, for third. Young birds are eyasses, older birds passagers, adult-trapped birds haggards. Half-trained hawks fly on a long line called a creance. Hawks don’t wipe their beaks, they feak. When they defecate they mute. When they shake themselves they rouse. On and on it goes in a dizzying panoply of terms of precision.
Macdonald herself has the soul of a poet and uses language to a lyrical, gorgeous degree in her book. Upon bringing Mabel home for the first time, she tells us the bird fills “the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.” She stands in a field “washed pewter with frost”. Pages of this beautiful wording fill the memoir. And strikingly, so does a strain of literary thriller, a masterful touch that lifts the narrative sharply from Macdonald’s heavy grief. Each foray the pair makes outside is fraught, first with fear—how will Mabel respond the hurly-burly of modern life—then, as the raptor is allowed to fly with increasing liberty, there is escape, violence, death. Macdonald snaps the necks of the rabbits that Mabel attacks; she pockets the pheasants that Mabel poaches. She watches with her heart in her throat as Mabel flies free, away from her, and realizes she has transferred all her hope and madness into this raw, fierce, creature.
Paralleling Macdonald and Mabel’s journey is the story of the British writer TH White, best known for The Sword in the Stone, his epic retelling of the Arthurian legend. White was also a falconer and wrote of his experiences trying to train a goshawk. His tribulations with Gos become something of a metaphor for his troubled life. Macdonald recounts the abuse and neglect he suffered at the hands of his parents, the depravity of his boarding school classmates, the cruel repression of his homosexuality, and his struggles as a writer. Macdonald seems to use the sadness of White’s life as a way to cope with her own, as well as a cautionary tale of how not to build a relationship with a goshawk.
At her father’s memorial, many months after his death, Macdonald has a crystalline epiphany: “…human hands have other hands to hold; they shouldn’t be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.” There are many turning points and milestones in the training of Mabel, but it is this moment when we see a human animal transform. Balancing between the dreamlike world of falconry and the prosaic demands of home, job, and relationships, she regains her footing.
As Macdonald so beautifully states, the “archeology of grief is not ordered.” There is no formula for surviving the worst the world can conjure. We each struggle our way through the morass. Helen Macdonald found her redemption in the keen, wild soul of goshawk.