Helen Macdonald’s memoir H is For Hawk has already bagged 2014’s Samuel Johnson Prize. Tina Jackson explains why this book is a keen contender for this month’s Costa Book of the Year Award.
Helen Macdonald’s goshawk Mabel. Photo by Helen Macdonald
Our modern lives, increasingly filled with the constant, ambient twitterings of social media, risk becoming very small – about the size of the screen on a smartphone. A thousand and one things complete, fleetingly, for our attention. We live in a world of surfaces, where trivia and ephemera are currency. We distract ourselves from what matters with a flurry of what doesn’t. Things that leave a lasting impression are rare.
Helen Macdonald’s profound, dazzling sweep of a book, H is for Hawk, is one of them. It is nature writing, but it is life-writing too, about things that are too vast, too tumultuous, to be easily penned into neat packages: grief, depression and wildness – not just the wildness of wild creatures and wild places, but of our own natures in extremis. They are things that are so big, so elemental, so monstrous, that most of us spend our lives trying to escape from, or at least evade them. But they lie in wait for all of us, and in H is for Hawk, Macdonald illuminates them with beauty and clarity.
Macdonald is a historian, poet, naturalist and a person with a long experience of falconry (she has written a textbook). Felled by grief after the sudden death of her father, seeking something that will definitively separate her from the world that seems meaningless to her, she yearns for, and takes on, the training of a young goshawk: a large, powerful, short-winged hawk so legendarily wild and elusive that she describes them as “the birdwatcher’s dark grail.”
“My heart jumps sideways,” she writes of their first meeting, when a man on a quay takes £800 in cash from her and hands over the bird that is to transform her life. “… everything is brilliance and fury… Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.”
How could something so rare, described in terms of such strange beauty, not captivate?
From this momentous meeting, Macdonald’s relationship with the hawk, which she calls Mabel, takes her on a process of discovery into her own wild nature. There are times when the author wonders, as she retreats from the world, cocooning herself from interaction with people as she co-exists with her bird of prey, if she can go back to the world of everyday relationships with other humans. She teaches Mabel to hunt, and exults in her success. She lays bare her struggles not just with Mabel as she trains her, but with herself: with depression and sorrow; with her increasing desire to be isolated from human contact.
It is searingly honest and written with love; no one has written better of how extraordinary, and rewarding, is the love for a creature so wild and so different. And there are other times when Mabel behaves in ways that so confound the expectations of the savage hunter – she plays, at length, with the author and rolled up pieces of paper – that the reader, as well as Macdonald, is joyfully taken aback.
Macdonald contrasts her own experience, of love and hard-won trust, with that of another author enraptured by goshawks: T S White, the author of The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King. The troubled life of the misfit 1920s schoolteacher and his clumsy, unwittingly cruel attempts to train his hawk, are disturbing to read: an imposition of authority, an attempt to translate an ideology or belief surrounding a creature into a real experience; a display of weakness that ultimately translated into knowledge and the creation of literature. These sections of H is for Hawk are not easy to read, but there is room in this book of wonders for flaws, frailty, anger – and forgiveness.
Unique and lyrical, it is an extraordinary memoir, and has deservedly won prizes: most recently the Costa Biography Prize, making it a contender for Costa Book of the Year at the end of this month. From Emily Bronte to Barbara Kingsolver and Kathleen Jamie, there have been many woman who have written, brilliantly, about the nature of the relationship between woman and the wild, but nature writing has traditionally not been an area where women writers have made names for themselves. H is for Hawk changes that. It is too facile to say that it’s about the journey from darkness to light, but perhaps it is about the transformation of darkness into illumination. It is inspiring – visionary, even. If a better, more beautifully written and more imaginatively captivating book about the relationship between a person and the wild than H is for Hawk has been written in recent years, please tell me.
H is for Hawk is published by Jonathan Cape
Tina Jackson is a Leeds-based writer and journalist with a parallel existence as a dancer and variety performer.