Part memoir, part self help book, part literary criticism and part nature book, H is for Hawk is a beautifully written story of grief and dedication, of obsession and nature. When lecturer Helen's beloved father dies unexpectedly, she does not know how to react. There is no right way to react, no best way to cope. How Helen copes is by deciding, suddenly and irrefutably that what she needs is a Goshawk, a fearsome killing machine and notoriously strong willed and difficult breed of hawk. She drives all day to meet a guy by a Scottish dock with £800 in an envelope and leaves with a box full of feathers, sharp points, muscle and fear.
What follows is her story of struggle and hope, of dedication and discipline. It looks like it's going to be a battle of wills, a war between woman and nature. But it doesn't feel like it. Yes there's an element of battle- but it's more of a teaching process than a conquest, the hawk learns to hunt, to return when called. She learns how to be around strangers and dogs and not to be terrified of everything. It feels like a series of lessons that teach a lost and hurting person how to be a human again. But first she needs to learn how to be a hawk.
Mable, as the hawk becomes, is one of my favourite animal characters of all time. I loved how Helen's falconry attitude allowed her to have a character. She's never a pet, never a true companion, but there's a wild, mutual respect and dependency that develops that I've never really read about before. There's a lovely bit where Helen plays catch with Mabel and is astounded that Goshawks play. The book is definitely full of surprises.
Helen becomes a recluse, weeks, months go by that see her purposely avoiding people. She draws the curtains, fills her freezer with dead chicks and shuts the world out. It's hard to tell if this is a part of the falconry process or the grieving process. Perhaps there's no need to separate them. Mabel is the solution to her isolation as much as the cause of it.
I loved the style of Macdonald's prose- she writes about nature beautifully and with such attention. This book made me want to go for a long walk in a forest and deep-breathe some good nature air. She punctuates her own story with parts of the life of TH White, author of The Goshawk and Sword in the Stone. His inexperienced and disastrous attempt at raising and flying his own Goshawk, Gos, contrast with Helen's researched and practiced methods, but he never seems evil, just misguided and a bit useless. But she makes mistakes too- overthinking things, getting neurotic, getting desperate when things don't work. It's a narrative about perseverance and hope as much as anything else. I admired her strength enormously. I think this context grounded the memoir, it made us understand more about Helen and her drive, as well as more about the ancient art of falconry.
I could go on...but I don't want to spoil it too much. H is For Hawk is, in short, a beautiful, complicated and in parts baffling story about coming to terms with loss and refusing to be defeated, and loyalty and nature. It's about so many things, and it's an absolute joy to read. Lyrical and mystical and honest- there's no wonder people keep throwing prizes at it.