I read a wonderful book a couple of weeks ago by the British writer and scholar Helen Macdonald – H Is For Hawk – and it was beautifully strange, wonderful, mystical and touching. The book is the number one seller in England and has gotten rave reviews all over the world.
I learned that she would be at Northshire Books tonight in nearby Manchester and Maria and I went to see her, there was a huge crowd all the way out to the children’s book section. I rarely go to other author’s book readings, and they rarely come to mine. I guess it’s too much like work, in a way, it’s hard to get your head out of being at the podium, I’ve done a reading at Northshire every year for 15 years.
I suppose jealousy could be another reason, the writer Wilfred Sheed wrote once in The New Yorker that “every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” Sheed wasn’t being nasty, he was being honest. I loved Macdonald’s talk and a I loved her book, but I died a little tonight.
The Economist wrote that there were three elements to Macdonald’s book: “One part memoir, one part gorgeous evocation of the natural world, and one part literary meditation.” And all of the parts are quite brilliant.
The book is an animal story in many ways, it details the obsessive, traumatic, nail-biting and compelling relationship between Macdonald, then an out-of-work college professor and a Goshawk, a particular ferocious and difficult kind of hunting hawk. Macdonald’s beloved father had just died suddenly, and she was stricken with a paralyzing grief. She had been fascinated with falconry and hawks her whole life, and she decided to get one of the most notoriously difficult kind of hawk – the murderous and rebellious Goshawk.
Macdonald was devastated by her father’s loss and she turned to the hawk, as so many of us do with animals, to her her mark and cope with a difficult passage of her life. Purchasing and training a Goshawk is not like getting a dog or a cat, or even a donkey. Hawks are essentially killing machines that can sometimes be trained to come back to you when they kill. The relationship is all about killing in many ways, about finding prey and getting the hawk to it.
I don’t think I could do the things Macdonald had to do to train and live with Mable, the human has to get just as much into the killing as the hawk. But this is something she badly needed to do. A hawk does not have quite as many dimensions as a dog or a cat or a donkey, they live to hunt and kill, they are not meant for cuddling or snuffling up while you watch TV.
She named her hawk Mabel and the training of the hawk was riveting, disturbing, intense and consuming. Macdonald says she was “nuts” then, as I was when I came to Bedlam Farm. I think you have to be nuts to bond with an animal like that in that way, and then the animal turns into a magical helper, and you are suddenly less nuts or not nuts at all. After Macdonald adopted Mabel, she channeled the tormented writer T.H.White (The Once And Future King) and his book The Goshawk for guidance.
Macdonald, now a research scholar at the University of Cambridge, had the intense animal experience of entering the animal’s mind to train and know her, she avoided people and normal life and the two almost became one thing, rather than two things. I have never had an animal like a Goshawk, but this experience, of entering the mind of an alien being, a magical helper who brought me back into the world, has happened to me. It is a powerful and very disturbing experience.
She captured it as well as it can be captured.
Mabel the Goshawk – she died two years ago – changed Macdonald’s life and helped her transcend her numbing and painful bereavement, and her descent into a kind of madness. Her love for her father seemed especially intense, and I wish Macdonald had explained it a little bit more, but then, this was the backdrop to the story, not the story itself.
Even though I died a bit, looking at the crowd, reading those reviews, I also loved every second of it. Sheed is right, I suppose, every writer winces a bit at a book as good as this one, but I loved being there much more than I didn’t. When a book and a writer deserves every bit of the praise, it softens the blow. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves books, beautiful writing, and especially to anyone who has powerfully interacted with an animal at a critical point in life. Macdonald’s book is dazzling and powerful.
Macdonald talked about the need for animals in our lives, and her worry that they are disappearing from the every day lives of people. I loved that message as well.