Tuesday, August 25, 2015

H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald

This is the best book I have read in a long, long time.  It's a memoir of an English woman studying at Cambridge.  Her father dies suddenly and to deal with her grief, she decides to train a goshawk, a large predatory bird.  She was fascinated with birds from an early age and had become a falconer and trained other hunting birds in the past.  The goshawk is considered difficult to train and she wanted a challenge.  She interweaves the writings on the subject of training a goshawk by the author of The Once and Future King, T. H. White with her journey through her grief accompanied by the goshawk.  
Her book is part memoir, part natural history lesson, part biography.  It sounds strange and odd and even unappealing.  Yet the way she describes the world after losing her father, her relationship with the goshawk, who she names "Mabel", and her analysis of T.H.White's book, The Goshawk, are remarkably rich fascinating and moving.

Some quotes I marked that illustrate her power of description.

"I thought about the book [The Goshawk] cautiously, ran my feelings over it the way you feel for a hurting tooth with your tongue."

"The hawk is on my fist.  Thirty ounces of death in a feathered jacket..."

[On her child-age reaction to reading a critical review of The Goshawk and T.H.White by the falconers' community]
"I was on the right side, was allowed to dislike this grown-up [the author] and consider him a fool.  It's painful to recall my relief on reading this [the review], founded as it was on a desperate misunderstanding about the size of the world.  I took comfort in the blithe superiority that is the refuge of the small."
"Now that Dad was gone I was starting to see how mortality was bound up in things like that cold, arc-lit sky.  How the world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might see them.  Once, twice.  Perhaps never again."
She isolates herself from other people and submerges in the hawk's world.  She is suffering and wants to be more hawk-like:  aloof, unmovable, independent.
" 'We are outsiders now, Mabel,' I say, and the thought is not unpleasant.  But I feel ashamed of my nation's reticence.  Its desire to keep walking, to move on, not to comment, not to interrogate, not to take any interest in something peculiar, unusual, in anything that isn't entirely normal."
She begins to realize she is slipping, depressed, unable to shake her sadness.
"We carry the lives we've imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost."
As she gets help and begins to see a way forward she reflects:
"There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things.  And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all.  You see that life will become a thing made of holes.  Absences.  Losses.  Things that were there and are no longer.  And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are."
The hawk has taught her things:
"Of all the lessons I've learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there - rock and trees and ...all the things that ...fly.  They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own view of the world.  In my time with Mabel I've learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not."
A wonderfully written, different and daring book.

Published: 2014  Read August 2015  Genre: Memoir

ISBN: 9 780802 12341

1 comment:

  1. Update: I re-read this for one of my reading groups in October 2016 - just as good if not better!
    Quotes: Bereavement. or Bereaved. Bereft meaning to deprive of, take away, seize, rob. Shocking loss isn't to be shared, no matter how hard you try."

    "I took comfor in the blithe superiority that is the refuge of the small"

    "Need to excel in order to be loved' - but what happens if you excel..and discover you are still unloved?"


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