Literature | Review
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is without a doubt “nature writing” at its finest. It’s the winner of the Samuel Johnson prize as well as the Costa biography award. Its beautifully written prose is poetic, sharp and mesmerizing all at once. Since childhood, Macdonald a writer and historian had a love for falconry. Knowledge that it belonged to a Victorian history made up of the male upper class didn’t seem to faze her in the slightest. When MacDonald’s father dies, she finds herself dealing with her grief by focusing on a new, notoriously difficult challenge which is training a goshawk. She writes, “The Victorian falconer assumed the power and strength of the hawk. The hawk assumes the manners of the man.” When Macdonald brings Mabel into her home and into her grief stricken state, she also brings the wild in. There are many instances in this beautifully written biography in which you wonder if Macdonald has purposefully set herself up for failure.
The hawk must stay inside the house at the beginning; this suits Macdonald of course for she is able to use this reason to shut away the world. By taking on a hawk, she inserts herself into a fantastic distraction that can engulf her almost entirely. She conjures vivid imagery of meat scraps in bins and darkness, such rawness of death almost permeates off the page. Although she finds the hawk aids her withdrawal from the outside, her presence also invites much unwanted attention and in fact becomes a shining beacon once she is allowed out. Macdonald cannot after all, disappear entirely, but in turn, she becomes what she describes as an outsider as the only people that seem to approach her and Mabel are the homeless; foreign students, Goths etc, she writes; “ ‘We are outsiders now, Mabel,’ I say, and the thought is not unpleasant.”
Whilst teaching this wild creature to hunt, Macdonald enters the wild herself and it is when she gets in too deep that she realizes what she needs, which is human contact; family, friends, a human hand in hers and not the sharp talons of a goshawk. A storyline running throughout is the story of T.H.White , his outside-ness and his own trials and tribulations in training a goshawk. Macdonald uses him as a point of reference, to not fail the way he did and to further her understanding in the relationship between man and goshawk. Whilst Macdonald’s snippets of her father are beautiful insights into his childhood and desire to investigate and discover the world through the lens, Macdonald seems to distract herself from her grief by inserting White into the right places.
The beauty of Macdonald’s writing is in the way she describes nature. It is not flat, it is undulating and teaming with life and death all at once as this is what her goshawk does. It hunts and kills.
publishd in Avrupa Times