H is for Hawk

This book was kindly recommended for us by avid reader, editor and office pal Kimberley Davis.

For the past few weeks she’s been talking a lot about goshawks, this is why.

What’s it called?

Who wrote it?
Helen Macdonald, an English writer-naturalist-historian-falconer (according to her twitter bio) and lyrical master of the English language. Lucky for us, she’s at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival, in conversation with Noelle McCarthy on Saturday at 3pm.

What other books did it remind you of?
The entire time I was reading the book, I was trying to think of how to answer this question but I couldn’t come up with anything. The truth is that this book is quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It’s the story of the author, Helen, coming to terms with the sudden loss of her father by taking on the daunting task of training a goshawk – majestic birds that are notoriously difficult to train. As she explained in an interview with Salon,
“I repeatedly dreamed of goshawks after my father died and some unconscious compulsion told me that training a goshawk was necessary. You can’t tame grief, but you can tame hawks. And the goshawk, as I explain in the book, wasn’t just a deep distraction. It was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed and free from human emotions. I didn’t want to be me anymore. I wanted to be something like a hawk: fierce, living entirely in the present and untouched by loss.”

Macdonald intertwines her own story with that of author T. H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk, which describes White’s own attempt to train a goshawk as means of exorcising his demons, captivated Macdonald as a child.
But, as Macdonald put it herself in an interview with the Guardian, there is much more to this book than first description might imply,
“While the backbone of the book is a memoir about that year when I lost my father and trained a hawk, there are also other things tangled up in that story which are not memoir. There is the shadow biography of T. H. White, and a lot of nature-writing, too. I was trying to let these different genres speak to each other.”

What issues/themes did it raise?
Obviously it dealt with the theme of grief, and the process you go through when you’ve lost someone you love. On a deeper level, though, it dissects the idea of identity, and how we respond to our own identity. For many people – White being a stark example – identity is something to be suppressed and avoided; and there’s a kind of grief in that.

Another major theme of the book is the idea of escape, of a return to a wilder, more natural state. Helen touches on this in the Salon quote above, and it’s a theme she returns to repeatedly throughout the book. The narrative of man (or woman, as the case may be) escaping civilization to return to his primitive roots is a strong one; its embedded in so many classic tales it’s not even worth listing them. The impulse to escape to nature is romanticised, held up as an ideal way to return to one’s true self and most natural state of being, and it’s this notion that Macdonald interrogates. As she ultimately explains, “Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

What did it leave you thinking about?
It left me thinking about so many things – what grief does to us, the idea of nature and the wild, what it means to be in contact with other human beings, and what history and the course of time does to how we understand things. I also, by way of Macdonald’s own fascination with falconry, found myself getting pretty obsessed with hawks; I’d have to stop to google goshawks to make sure that I was picturing exactly what Macdonald described. Then, because goshawks are so glorious, I’d be distracted for another twenty minutes or so just scrolling through images of them.

Would you recommend it to others?
Yes, absolutely. This book has already been lauded by critics across the globe – it has won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize and the 2014 Costa Book of the Year award, was shortlisted for the 2014 Duff Cooper Prize and longlisted for the 2015 Thwaites Wainwright Prize, and it reached the The Sunday Times best-seller list within two weeks of being published.

Also, it’s an absolute treasure to read. Every sentence feels so carefully, perfectly composed, that I’d find myself reading certain paragraphs several times through, for the simple joy of savouring Macdonald’s language. When she explains, “there’s a brumous, pewter light outside, as if someone had stuck tracing paper against the glass,” you can’t help but be transported to where she is (and marvel at her vocabulary). Throughout the book, every detail is infused with poetry; even looking out of a rain-drizzled window becomes a visceral experience, “and at night, at home, I stood at the window watching the lights outside, pressing my forehead against the pane to feel the faint ticking of summer rain through glass and bone.”

See Helen MacDonald discussing H is for Hawk at the Auckland Writers Festival this weekend. www.writersfestival.co.nz