Thursday, 5 November 2015

H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald (A REVIEW)

Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald is an affiliated research scholar at Cambridge University working in the department of History and Philosophy of Science. Until 2007 she had been a research fellow at Jesus College Cambridge. She has published three books, Shalers Fish, in 2001, Falcon, in 2006 and H is for Hawk, in 2014 for which she won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction and became a Sunday Times best seller.

and I’m just standing there. I can’t say a word,”cause everything’s just gone. I’ve got nothing absolutely nothing.” (Mike Skinner, The Streets, 2004)

This is a line from a song written by Mike Skinner of The Streets called “Dry Your Eyes. “It is written in the first person,a self-confessional style. The reader is brought into immediate emotional contact with the writer. Helen Macdonald uses this style to great effect in H is for Hawk. The lines written by Mike Skinner above could almost have come straight from Helen Macdonald’s book. She expresses those very thoughts and emotions when she thinks she has lost, Mabel, her Goshawk, on a number of occasions. She feels those emotions after her fathers death. Macdonald is a complex person. We all are, I know, but she conveys that complexity in depth in her book.

The first person style seems to be the  thing of the moment. It is the style of all autobiographies past and present of course but the first person autobiographical style has been taken up by many of our modern modes of communication and entertainment. Instagram , Twitter and Facebook are relatively new ways of creating a first person contact with an  audience of so called, "Friends."  I am not saying Macdonald is taking part in this alternative reality. She is publishing her thoughts and ideas in a traditional and tried format, the book. She is not baring her soul on a whim on Instagram or Facebook. I have just read A Shepherds Life by James Rebanks, who incidentally was Oxbridge educated too but at Oxford in his case.  His book began as a series of Twitter messages. His twitter account is still extant. These things should not overwhelm the person creating them. Helen Macdonald has enough to overwhelm her in H is For Hawk without the complexities caused by social media. 

A goshawk.

H is for Hawk, is about Helen MacDonald’s self-analysis and psychological and emotional recovery from the death of her father. It is also about combating  her own self. It is a sort of growing and maturing process. She does this through a number of ways.

The training and learning process needed and personal skill of being an austringer is one way that she addresses her psychological problems. She trains, a goshawk, she names Mabel. This  is her primary focus. The process of training Mabel is closely connected  with coping or not coping with the bereavement of her much loved father. It is a flawed coping mechanism in many ways. She also has a difficult and tortuous relationship with the long dead T H White; he died in 1964 and Macdonald was born in 1970. He is the famous author of series of stories, The Once and Future King. Macdonald’s interest in White is allied somewhat to Whites mental journey in writing his fiction, but is mostly connected to a book White wrote about training a hawk he called GOS. In this book, which he named, Gos,after his goshawk, he relates his progress in  training the bird and it is this process that Helen Macdonald argues with, challenges and has very strong emotional reactions to.

T H White
Macdonald has a discourse with her past and her present. She is caught up in the struggle created by her emotional responses and memories of her dead father and the dead White. They appear to be the only three dimensional characters in the book. Any friends, including her mother, and  a few Hawking friends, are one dimensional, almost ghosts, hardly there. She is close to Stuart and his wife who live in a cottage and breed and fly hawks. We get a small sense of her attachment and love for them. Her friends seem to be varied, from different social strata. She feels more at home with a truck driver than an academic. Macdonald hones in on warmth of personality and for want of another word, love. The connection is always hawks though. I worried about Macdonald as the book unfolded. She was so single minded, so mentally focussed on the hawk that the real world disappeared for her. She makes you believe that she is beginning to think, feel and actually be a hawk herself. It was almost a relief at one point to know that she herself realised this and went to a doctor for depression and received medication. She was breaks down in front of the readers eyes. At the end of the book she has a healthy distance from Mabel. 

I found it interesting to hear Macdonalds account of when she heard that her father had died. Her mother phoned her. When her mother got the words out Macdonald described her feelings as like being hit hard. It was a physical shock as much as an emotional shock. She had no control over it. I remember, when I was a student in my 20’s getting a phone call from my mother telling me my much loved grandmother had died. I too felt that physical punch. My brain was awash, I couldn’t think straight and I had to lie down. My whole body shook. Part of the process that happens during the book is Macdonald’s recovery from that emotional and physical shock of hearing that her father was dead. She couldn’t choose to control it. The shock controlled her and took its own time. The process involving her father was about memories, how her father had taken her bird watching, how he had shown interest in what she was interested in. She describes how he had taken a part in shaping her as a human being. What she is now is part due to her father.

This awareness of self and the effect our inner emotional and psychological selves can have on our exterior lives and relationships is one of the key elements of this book. She takes strong umbridge with T H White in the training of his hawk,Gos. Macdonald tells us that White is a sado masochist. There is a lot of White’s autobiography in this book. He had been beaten often as a school boy at the great public school of Stowe in Buckinghamshire. Where the older boys had beaten him ritualistically as a young boy, as he became one of the older boys he beat the younger ones. He went on to be a teacher at Stowe and so the process continued with him. Macdonald sees signs of Whites suppressed sado erotic and masochistic traits in his training of his hawk. She thinks that White is mostly wrong. aWhite loses Gos who escapes. He is desolate and defeated. However, for all Macdonalds obvious dislike of White, she has a strong fatalistic attachment to him. It almost feels that she is joined to him in his struggles. She is always comparing her struggles with Mabel to White's struggles with Gos. Macdonald is far from perfect herself and often comes across as strange and damaged as White does.

Macdonald bought her goshawk from a breeder in Northern Ireland. She had to meet her hawk on the quayside of some Scottish harbour. The whole description of her getting the goshawk has a sense of mystery and subterfuge. It is as though some sort of illegal exchange is going on. I think this is heightened by Macdonalds admiration and feeling of awe for the hawk. Hawks have a dark sinister aspect to them. We are reminded throughout the book that hawks mean death. They are killing machines. MacDonald ttells us about the imagery that hawks have been associated with over the centuries. The Nazis saw the goshawk as a symbol for their air force. In fact Goring had been an austringer himself. Cambridge where she lives is in the middle of the Fens. It is low lying marshy land all around and the wind blows in off The North Sea. There are USAF airbases with planes carrying nuclear warheads stationed in East Anglia. There are moments when she describes air force planes roaring overhead as she is flying Mabel on the Fens. The connection between killing machines, plane and hawk, is not lost. To Macdonald, hawks are hawks. They are wild animals. They do not have human thoughts and motivations. They do what hawks do and should not be connected to human actions for human gratification.

One thing that is clear, Macdonald is an obsessive. She has total focus on what she is doing. She shows this throughout the book in the exactness of her training of Mabel. She is so intense that every nerve ending, every sense is stretched to the limit with her. She even begins to see the world as a hawk would see it or rather as she imagines a hawk would see it. She is thinking in unison with Mabel. Or she thinks she is. When things don’t go right, Macdonald is distraught. She becomes hyper sensitive to every nuance. Does this make her a genius? Does this make her brilliant?  At one stage Macdonald ends her fellowship at St Johns and at the same time has to move from her rented accommodation, so she is virtually jobless and homeless. What makes each one of us great or brilliant in our own way is not what society dictates, education, job, house, family.  Macdonald almost spurns these. There is an awareness that she does care about these things, especially about not having a job or roof over her head but she adamantly pursues what she loves for no financial gain or approval from society. I have mentioned already that her friends are those she loves and feels comfortable with not those who can benefit her in other ways or have high positions. I admire her for this. She reminds me of James Rebanks, The Shepherd. He was advised at school to leave farming and get another job because farming was seen as servile and low. He baulked at this suggestion. He could see the nobility and intelligence needed and the life long and generational adherence to a landscape and way of life. That was important to him. I get the same sense of what is of true value from Helen Macdonald too.

Towards the end of the book there is a chapter where she and her mother are   spending Christmas with friends in Southern Maine. The chapter is called New World.  The New World being America is obvious, but at this point Macdonald is emerging from her depressions and introversions into the,”new world,” of sanity and normality. She is much more relaxed and the people around her, including her mother, can be seen three dimensionaly at last. They are living and breathing people once again. She also discusses the land use laws in Maine and compares them to the more stringent rules in Britain. Macdonald, going against many liberal minded people, thinks hunting is a good thing. To her it is about the preditor, prey situation of a balanced habitat. She feels a bond and strong understating between hunter and hunted.

The book cover for, "H is for Hawk," by Helen Macdonald.

There is another chapter entitled, Winter Histories. At one point she flys Mabel in local, familiar fields around Cambridge. These are fields that Mabel knows well. Macdonald recalls where Mabel caught a rabbit under a hedge. She remembers how Mabel got entangled in the branches of a tree nearby. She watches Mabel visit in a swooping flight, various places where she had caught and killed prey in the past; revisiting, remembering, relating to her environment and habitat.  When we live and experience a place over time we form a  relationship of memories, good and bad with it. I know the area I live in well. It has memories built up over years. It is part of me and I am part of it.

One of the major themes of this book is love. Macdonald has love for friends. The love for her father comes across strongly. Her love for Mabel is a major theme. Throughout the book you can see how a loving relationship forms in the way she relates to Mabel. Macdonald gives her whole self to Mabel. At one point, I thought will she ever be able to have a relationship in this way with a human? But Macdonald does mention her close human relationships; there are hints and mentions. 


  1. Tony, what a wonderful review you've written. I'm almost tempted to read the book. May do so in future, but right now I'm into lighter reading. That physical jolt you describe getting on news of your grandmother's death is one I have felt too many times in my life. Yes, lighter reading is called for just now. :-)

  2. Hi Jean. H is for Hawk, has a number of layers to it. It is not a light read. It certainly makes you think and challenges you.