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. p129

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Macdonald, H. (2014) H is for Hawk Jonathan Cape London ISBN 9780224097000

I’m not sure why I avoided this book for so long, perhaps it was the fact that it had been lauded by just about everyone who’s opinion I rated, and I didn’t want to be disappointed, perhaps my avoiding it was an exercise in a little delayed gratification?

I was wary and wasn’t sure what to expect. I shouldn’t have worried, the book is surprising, intelligent, engrossing and bewitching.

Whilst the book is certainly about a hawk and falconry, it’s also about so much more besides, as Macdonald presents a hugely wise and thought-provoking meditation on death, grief, loneliness, love and society. It’s a master work, by turns plain odd and oddly fascinating. Macdonald, precipitated by her father’s death, comes close to a total nervous breakdown, her world quite literally falls part. She withdraws, and yet at the very same time begins the training of Mabel the goshawk which initially provided her with just the excuse she needed to step outside the ‘real’ world, and re-enter the cloistered world of falconry with its arcane terminology, its lore and mystery.

On her unflinchingly honest account of her spiritual journey into darkness and ultimately back into the light MacDonald takes as a companion not just Mabel, but another outsider, ill-at-ease with the world and his ambiguous place within it. It’s the close reading of T. H. White’s tortured masterpiece The Goshawk that provides a rather wonderful counterpoint to Macdonald’s vivid description of her unfolding relationship with the hawk and her coming to terms with loss.

Macdonald writes like a dream, as these examples hopefully illustrate:

On childhood:

“I was a watcher. I has always been a watcher. When I was a child I’d climb the hill behind my house and crawl into my favourite den under a rhododendron bush, wriggling down on my tummy under the overhanging leaves like a tiny sniper. And in this secret foxhole, nose an inch from the ground, breathing crushed bracken and acid soil, I’d look down on the world below, basking in the fierce calm that comes from being invisible but seeing everything. Watching, not doing.” p68

On her father’s childhood ‘plane spotting’ notebooks:

“It is then that the knowledge of why my father watched planes drops into my head. When he and his friends had been small boys running feral across London bombsights, he’d told me, they collected things. Collected anything: shrapnel, cigarette packets, coins; mostly things that came in series. things that could be matched and swapped; sets that could be completed. Collecting things like this, I realised, must have stitched together their broken world of rubble, made sense of the world disordered by war. And my father’s aeroplanes were just as much of a set to collect: a series of beautiful, moving things with names and numbers, all deeply concerned with danger and survival. But there was more. Aeroplanes had wings. They took flight, and if you knew them, watched them, understood their movements, you could somehow take flight too […] In watching the planes, you fly with them and escape. They enlarge your little world and spread it across the seas.

The notebooks are full of a fierce attention to things I do not know. But now I know what they are for. These are records of ordered transcendence. A watcher’s diary. My father’s talk of patience had held within it all the magic that is waiting and looking up at the moving sky.” p267

On Old England:

“Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about: climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived  here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.” p265

And of course, on a hawk, from towards the end of the book:

“The hawk and I have a shared history of these fields. There are ghosts here, but they are not long-dead falconers. They are ghosts of things that happened.

It’s a child’s world, full of separate places. Give me a paper and pencil now and ask me to draw a map of the fields I roamed about when I was small, and I cannot do ti. But change the question, and ask me to list what was there and I can fill pages. […] These places had a magical importance, a pull on me that other places did not, however devoid of life they were in all the visits since.

And now I’m giving Mabel her head, and letting her fly where she wants, I’ve discovered something rather wonderful. She is building a landscape of magical places too. She makes detours to check particular spots in case the rabbit or pheasant that was there last week might be there again. It is wild superstition, it is an instinctive heuristic of the hunting mind, and it works. She is learning a particular way of navigating the world, and her map is coincident with mine. Memory and love and magic. What happened over the years of my expeditions as a child was a slow transformation of my landscape over time into what naturalists call a local patch, glowing with memory and meaning. Mabel is doing the same. She is making the hill her own. Mine. Ours.” p241

She’s a deserved recipient of the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. H is for Hawk is a book of rare beauty. It’s a memorable and alchemical read.

Further Reading:

1. The Guardian Review by Mark Cocker (23 July 2014) HERE

2. The Guardian Review by Rachel Cooke (04 August 2014) HERE

3. FT Review by Melissa Harrison (18 July 2014) HERE

4. London Review Bookshop John Clegg talking to Helen Macdonald HERE

5. Times Literary Supplement Review by Janette Currie HERE

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