I had to work hard not to let my long association with falconry taint my Sunday Independent review of Helen McDonald’s nature memoir ‘H Is For Hawk’. Luckily, it is a beautiful piece of work regardless of whether you know your Barbary falcons from your Red-Nape Shaheens…
AFTER the death of her beloved father, writer, poet, Cambridge academic and falconer Helen McDonald sought out falconry’s most challenging charge – the goshawk, “the ruffian” of the hawk world. It would, she hoped, consume her so greedily as to soften the waves of remorse she felt for her father, a Fleet St photojournalist whom her nature-mad childhood had revolved around. The move chimed with other glaring absences in her life; a man, a family, a job or a permanent abode.
Unlike most reviewers, I have actually trained and hunted with a goshawk and would not wish it on anyone going through a time of emotional fragility. Only perhaps racehorses require more daily management than falconry birds, all of which are non-domesticated species that must be intensively conditioned to tolerate and respond to the trainer before flying free. In particular, however, few birds in this ancient art absorb patience or test resolve like the spring-loaded, mercurial goshawk.
McDonald’s subconscious took her and her grief into the world of this solitary species, a place where human connections and feelings would only get in the way. H Is For Hawk is about that process and what she discovers on the other side. But there is also much more going on in this achingly honest journey.
As a child, McDonald was a raptor “bore” to her parents, obsessing over them, drawing them, and poring over all the old falconry literature. One of these texts was TH White’s The Goshawk (1951). White – who deserved more fame in his lifetime for his Arthurian legends The Once And Future King and Disney’s adaptation of his The Sword In The Stone – had, as McDonald biographs with forensic sensitivity, a sorry life. He was abused by his violently incompatible parents as well as at school, and lived with little in the way of human companionship due to his closeted homosexuality. The goshawk he disastrously trained in 1936 was White’s way of “disappearing into nature” in order to treat utterly human wounds.
White thus looms large on the fringes of McDonald’s courageous memoir. Besides the skill and thought with which she pieces apart his nebulous life and motives, she uses White as a prism through which to understand her own self-imposed feathery exile. Where once she scorned White the novice falconer, she now finds herself softening to him. She stands back even further then, questioning the romantic myth of nature being a refuge for bruised hearts. Mabel – the name she gives to her own captive-bred goshawk – is a predator, a “spooky, pale-eyed psychopath”, no matter how comfortable and playful she comes to be in the author’s company. It is ultimately the hawk’s cold-eyed lack of humanity in the hunt that reminds McDonald of her need to return to more human temperatures.
And yet for a book that has death and dead people at its core, H Is For Hawk is not only full of light and buoyancy but is also some of the most charged nature writing to appear since JA Baker’s evergreen The Peregrine (1967). McDonald’s ruminations on Mabel, her prey, English wildlife and habitat are gilded, shimmering things, like graffiti being precision-flung before your eyes. Here, a cloud of bouncing linnets are “half midges, half musical notation”. There, a wild hawk’s swoop is “a knife-cut, a smooth calligraphic scrawl”.
Baker, like White, leaked shards of himself into his OCD-laced diary, but McDonald has perhaps more in common with AL Kennedy whose On Bullfighting begins as a treatise on a mystery and ends up being illuminated by something from within the writer themselves. This, along with some exquisite language, is McDonald’s achievement and the reason for the many textures, both tame and wild, harrowing and celebratory, found here.
Hilary A White
H Is For Hawk, by Helen McDonald. Jonathan Cape, €14.99
First published in the Sunday Independent