After the Hype Review: H is for Hawk

Welcome to After the Hype, which is a feature where I review books that have recently been A Big Deal, and now that all the excitement surrounding them is gone, decide whether or not they are worth reading when the party’s all over. Today’s installment features my review of Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk:

…And so you run towards those little shots of fate, where the world turns. That is the lure, that is why we lose ourselves, when powerless from hurt and grief, in drugs or gambling or drink; in addictions that collar the broken soul and shake it like a dog. I had found my addiction on that day out with Mabel. It was ruinous, in a way, as if I’d taken a needle and shot myself with heroin. I had taken a flight to a place from which I didn’t want to ever return.

– from Chapter 18, “Flying Free”

Sometimes responses to books utterly baffle me, and this is one of them. There’s the one strain of reviews that dismiss this book as “too much about training hawks” and think it should only be read by hawk specialists. And then there’s the absolutely radioactively glowing reviews, not only from those I expect, but from publications and reviewers that I couldn’t imagine would care to touch this with a ten-foot pole. Even the Economist, which loves its political books and Important Histories, took time out to love this book.

I honestly don’t know what to say to the first group of people. I guess Mrs. Dalloway gives you too much information about some woman’s errands and Moby Dick tells you too much about whales, eh? But I’m absolutely delighted by the second group because this is one of those times that proves to me that truly powerful literature can and will find a way through to a wide group of people. This is the sort of book that will become a classic for all the right reasons- all the myriad of reasons that its readers found to resonate to it.

And there are plenty. H is for Hawk is Helen MacDonald’s memoir of her time training a goshawk, one of the most notoriously difficult birds to train, even for experienced falconers. It is also an ongoing psychological analysis of her own state of mind during this time, since she takes on this very challenging project after the death of her father. MacDonald tracks the progress of her grief as she conceives of, acquires and begins the training process of a hawk who comes to be called Mabel.

h is for hawkMabel

The most powerful spell drawing the reader into this work is MacDonald’s raw emotionality. From the beginning, we are lured into the maelstrom of her grief via combination of surreal, interlocking images and impressions, literary imaginings and interludes of lucid narrative that come to seem dreamlike in their very normalcy. She slowly transports us out of our senses until we are properly prepared to be living inside of her skin, all of a sudden blinking our eyes, and finding, like MacDonald, that we are looking out on a world that is different from what we have known, understanding what she means when she finds stepping outside to be full of danger:

Leaving the house that evening is terrifying. Somewhere in my mind ropes uncoil and fall. It feels like an unmooring, as if I were an airship ascending on its maiden flight into darkness.. Everything seems hot and clean and dangerous and my senses are screwed to their utmost, as if someone had told me the park was full of hungry lions. I look down and see each pale blade of grass casts two separate shadows from the two nearest lamps, and so do I, and in the distance comes the collapsing echo of a moving train and somewhere close a dog barks twice and there’s broken glass by the path and next to it is a father from the breast of a woodpigeon- “Bloody hell, Mabel,” I whisper, “Who spiked my tea with acid?”

MacDonald takes us to live in a place of unrestrained emotions, all of her pyschological dams broken- that is, all the blocks we put in place that are full of qualifiers to protect our inner lives from bumping up against the inner cores of others, or worse, against the more successful retaining walls that they have put in place to protect their own. It is no wonder, then, that like so many British Romantics, American transcendentalists and Catholic saints before her, she snaps her creances[1] and retreats from a suddenly unfamiliar and threatening world and into something that matches the new place where she and her emotions live: wildness.

Robert MacFarlane wrote, in his beautiful prose-poem to the untamed, open spaces of the British Isles that is The Wild Places, that the word “wild” has a complex etymology:

The etymology of the word ‘wild’ is vexed and subtle, but the most persuasive past proposed for it involves the Old High German wildi and the Old Norse villr as well as pre-Teutonic ghweltijos. All three of these terms carry implications of disorder and irregularity.. they bequeathed to the English root-word “will”. Wildness, then, according to this etymology, is an expression of independence from human direction.

In this case, for MacDonald, that independent wildness is symbolized by the notoriously independent goshawk, which even MacDonald’s fellow falconers try to warn her off training.[2] In a gorgeous imagined conversation that extends throughout the book, MacDonald weaves the story of her own goshawk training through with TH White’s The Goshawk, the tragic tale of his ultimate failure to tame his own hawk. This other book haunts MacDonald’s imagination, serving as both practical and psychological foil for her own journey, touching off some fascinating, and deeply moving, passages of imaginary identification that make its inclusion far more than a convenient literary device. Instead, it becomes a necessary companion to her emotional understanding of herself. As it turns out, TH White was also trying to disappear a large part of himself deemed unacceptable by society and by his own self-hatred, submerging it in interactions with animals and rendering himself unable to reveal it to others through retreat and silence.[3] MacDonald wrestles with White, conversing with him, raging at him, dreaming into being his tortured nights and forlorn hopes in short vignettes that ache with the sort of understanding that you hope that someone you love never finds themselves having to have.

hisforhawklookHelen MacDonald and Mabel

MacDonald relates to us how it feels when you are throwing yourself into this wildness and becoming something Other. Her psychological honesty is unflinching, showing us her desperate need to escape time through the immediacy of nature’s needs, as well as her attempts to transport herself into the mind of the goshawk, leaving her pitiful self behind on the couch. At times, this is surreal and otherworldly, such as when she mentally and emotionally joins in the hunt with Mabel:

Now I cannot see the hawk because I am searching for the pheasant, so I have to work out what she is doing by putting myself in her mind- and so I become both the hawk in the branches above and the human below. The strangeness of his splitting makes me feel I am walking under myself, and sometimes away from myself. Then for a moment, everything becomes dotted lines, and the hawk, the pheasant and I are merely elements in a trigonometry exercise, each of us labeled with soft italic letters. And now I am so invested in the hawk and the pheasant’s relative positions that my consciousness cuts loose entirely, splits into one or the other, first the hawk looking down, second the pheasant in the brambles looking up, and I move over the ground as if I couldn’t possibly affect anything in the world. Time stretches and slows. Then the pheasant is flushed, a pale and burning chunk of muscle and feathers, and the hawk crashes from the hedge towards it. And all the lines that connect heart and head and future possibilities, those lines that connect me with the hawk and the pheasant and with life and death suddenly become safe, become tied together in the small muddle of feathers and gripping talons that stand in mud in the middle of a small field in the middle of a small county in the middle of a small country on the edge of winter.

And at times it is touchingly sad, such as when MacDonald begins to play games with Mabel in her isolation, discovering, not entirely with a sense of joy, that the fierce goshawk likes to play:

I have spent my evenings playing with Mabel. I’ve made her toys out of paper and tissue and card. She turns her head upside down, puffs out her chin-feathers, squeaks, picks up the toys in her beak, drops them and preens. When I throw her balls of scrunched up paper she catches them in her beak and tosses them back to me with a flick of her head. It is as good as it gets. When I told Stuart I played catch with her, for awhile he didn’t believe me. You don’t play with goshawks, Helen. It’s not what people do.

MacDonald’s journey back to herself shows us the necessity, sometimes, of stepping so far outside of the boundaries that only then can you look back with a sense of understanding, identity or affection on the place that you originated from. It both a breathtaking, often dark, but always beautiful assurance of all the things that await us beyond the pale of human reason and desire, whenever we need them, but also that the road eventually does curve around towards home, whenever we are ready for it to do so. Mapped gorgeously out onto her understanding of her relationship with the goshawk, MacDonald shows us powers of perception that are terrifying, but ultimately forgiving, that ultimately offer us both torture and the succor we never dared hope for.

A wonderful grace note of this moving emotional journey was the psychological particularity of MacDonald’s confession-like memoir. This the underpinning that did the most work towards making this work ring true to me. It did so much to remove it from the realm of literary exercise and to give me the heart and brain I needed to see to truly let myself join her where she was and to break my heart. This is clearly an academic mind- the reach for a fellow writer to share her pain cut me deeply, especially as she begins to almost automatically go through the exercise of bringing him to life, writing character sketches and sharing bits of research like any academic article- only to have it collapse into the fevered imaginings of firesides and walks in the woods never described that remind us of the jagged roadblocks and unexpected chasms that strong emotions throw up in in the psyche.

It is also a mind concerned with history and with politics. Like any trained academic, MacDonald’s impulse is to put what she is experiencing into context, which means that we will get small bits and pieces of the history of falconry’s place in the British national myth as surface evidence of her attempts at calm and rationality, it means that her subliminated anxiety comes out in worries over the fact that Hitler and racists sometimes liked falconry (indeed apparently TH White’s hawk came from the same man who provided hawks to SS leaders)[4], it means that like any good analytic mind she has already half self-psychoanalyzed herself before she’s even begun (even if this does her no practical good.)

This made every single time she interacted with Mabel ring all the truer and deeper to me, showing us how all of her other tools had failed her when it came to dealing with grief, and she was clinging to this hawk as the one thing that seemed to offer her refuge, and then understanding of her grief. It meant that when she finally got to the core of her reasons for loving Mabel, that however literary or symbolic or psychologically false it might have seemed at the beginning, by the end, it was the natural and inevitable conclusion for a story that was, ultimately, about putting back together all the pieces of her that wouldn’t work at the beginning.

This is a book of escape. This is a book of deep self-examination. This is a diary observation of what it feels like to crumble, inwardly. This is a book of rediscovery and healing. But ultimately, this is a book of poetry. This is a book about knowing what you love, so that when the time comes, you know what will heal you.


[1] Creance- a line used by falconers while training their birds- it keeps the bird tethered to their arm while they are trained to fly away and back to their masters from farther and farther distances. Poorly made creances will snap, leaving hawks free to fly away- many never return.

[2] The goshawk was dismissed throughout the nineteenth century as “willful” and “independent” by the aristocratic men who dominated falconry, and romantically conceived of, in the late Renassiance, as a female symbol, much like ships and the sea, to be “courted and seduced” rather than dominated- since one never fully could. Falconry’s place in the man-vs-nature “civilizing” story of the nineteenth century is frequently discussed.

[3] TH White was gay and a self admitted sadist- the latter of the two qualities perhaps, his therapist thought, having been picked up through the cruelties of his boarding school days, and the constant threat of violence he was under during his parents’ fights over his cradle in India. The saddest story related about him here was how he built a beautiful bedroom in his country retreat, full of romantic-colored bedspreads and soft pillows, gilt-edged mirrors, woven curtains and carved furniture- and then wouldn’t allow himself to sleep in it. He slept on an army camp bed in the next room.

[4] One of my favorite passages comes from these musings. I’ve rarely seen someone so bravely confront something so emotionally a part of their core identity and see it for what it is: “On the Ridgeway path, aged nine or ten, was where for the first time I realized the power a person might feel by aligning themselves to deep history. Only much later did I understand these intimations of history had their own, darker, history. The chalk country-cult rested on a presumption of organic connections to a landscape, a sense of belonging sanctified through an appeal to your own imagined lineage. That chalk downloads held their national, as well as natural, histories. And it was much later, too, that I realized that these myths hurt. That they work to wipe away other cultures, other histories, other ways of loving, working and being in a landscape. How they tiptoe towards darkness.”

* * *

… So? Worth the hype?

Verdict: As you can probably tell, I think it was absolutely worth the hype. More than that, go beyond the library and spend the money and buy it. I can guarantee you or someone you love will need it, more than once, over the years. It’s everything a classic should be. This is one of the few times I’m going to tell you that the hype should have been bigger, honestly. Seriously… Go get it.