Friday, 30 January 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

"I must try to be happier, I told myself. For the sake of the hawk I must."

I love the cover of this book. I noticed it immediately on the display stand in the library. I have also recently read a glowing review of it. So despite my New Year's resolution to bring fewer into the house and read more from the TBR - I checked it out of the library and brought it home.

I enjoyed reading it very much. It is a memoir about recovery from loss; Helen Macdonald's father dies suddenly and she is absolutely grief stricken. I loved the tone of it, it is not at all maudlin or self pitying - just honest. Helen is almost unhinged by her loss and she makes the seemingly rash decision to buy and train a goshawk. She has some experience because she's worked in a falconry centre in the past and it's always been a fascination of hers. On the other hand she's not thinking clearly because she's so sad, her job is about to come to an end leaving her without a regular income, and she will have to move house.

She buys the goshawk, who is called Mabel, and sets about training her. Birds of prey seem to be quite solitary creatures and I wondered if that was the attraction. Grief can be quite isolating, perhaps it was comforting to spend time with another creature who is alone.

One of the books she read about falconry when she was young was The Goshawk by TE White. H is for Hawk is interspersed with quotes from this book and Helen Macdonald's observations about White. He was a very troubled man, and it was interesting to compare his experiences with Helen's.

She flies Mabel on farmland near her home. There is some lovely writing about this. Gazing at a hill in the distance:

I feel I might be up there, because now the hill is home. I know it intimately. Every hedgerow, every track through dry grass where the hares cut across field-boundaries, each discarded piece of rusted machinery, every earth and warren and tree. By the road, half an acre of fenced-off mud, scaled with tyre tracks and water reflecting pieces of sky. Wagtails, pallets, tractors, a broken silo on its side like a fallen rocket stage. Here is the sheep field, there is the clover ley, now mown and turned to earth. Further up the track are tracts of mugwort: dead now from frost, seeds clinging to stems and branches like a billion musty beads on ragged Christmas trees. Piles of bricks and rubble run along the left-hand side of the track, and the earth between them is soft and full of rabbits. Further up the hill the hedges are higher, and by the time I get to the top the track has narrowed into grass. Cow parsley. Knapweed. Wild burdock. The argillaceous shimmer of tinder-fire clay. Drifts of chalk beneath. Yellowhammers chipping hedges. Cumulus rubble. The maritime light of this island, set as it is under a sky mirrored and uplit by sea.

Mabel is good for Helen. She needs taking care of so that gives Helen a reason to be up in the morning. She needs to be exercised so that gets them both out of the house. And because Helen needs advice about Mabel she has to interact with people even when she feels like locking herself away. Gradually things get better for her and the initial intensity of her grief begins to lessen.

This is a lovely book, I think it is one I will return to.

1 comment:

  1. When I was in high school, I read a book about a troubled teen who got involved with hawks - I've forgotten a lot of the details, but not the fascination with the birds and their training. This sounds like an amazing book - and I think I just saw recently that it won a major award?