H is for Hawk is amazing. It took me too long to get around to reading it. It reminded me of Levels of Life by Julian Barnes, another book I loved. Levels of Life is an account of Barnes’ grief over his wife dying, combined with a history of ballooning. Perhaps becoming obsessed and interested in something after a loss is the only way to overcome it. Both books combine their narrative threads expertly and similarly, as if they are producing a tapestry. Helen Macdonald writes so beautifully and without cliché. I want to read her poetry.
Macdonald’s dad died and she decided to buy and train a goshawk, a notorious bird, to help her process her grief. Macdonald has had a lifelong love of birds and it seems to give her a reason to stay alive; she identifies more and more with her young goshawk, Mabel, and seems very talented and thoughtful in handling her. Macdonald plays throwing and catching games with Mabel, like a dog would. But Macdonald starts adapting too much to Mabel’s world: Mabel is solitary, scared of people and kills for pleasure. Macdonald wants to overcome death and Mabel revels in it; but Macdonald is, sadly, still human.
Hawks were not bred by humans so haven’t changed in the last five hundred years, unlike dogs, so there is a timeless quality to them. Along with her own story, Macdonald looks at the history of hawking and the history of the writer of The Sword in the Stone, T. H. White, who published his own book on raising a goshawk. White had his reasons for training an outsider like a goshawk; he was a gay man writing in the first half of the twentieth century and everything around him screamed that he was not normal. Macdonald notes that the more she identified with White, the less well she became. Like Mabel, Macdonald becomes solitary in her grief. She avoids other people and becomes depressed. The account of her doctor telling her that she was depressed and that they could help was difficult for me to read because I had been in the same situation. This book made me cry a few times. One of my worst fears is losing people I love.
Macdonald weaves all of her threads together to form a narrative that others dream about creating. I have wanted to read a narrative like this all year; it is so rich with thought and feeling. Macdonald is utilising her grief through her training of Mabel; this has an adverse effect at times, but Mabel ends up healing her scars, as well as causing some. H is for Hawk combines historical and nature writing with a literary and heartfelt memoir about life and death. It has everything in it, and the writing itself is so sensitive, honest and intelligent. It is beautiful and deserves to win lots of things. It’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.