H is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald
A summary of H is For Hawk sounds hardly compelling—a writer coping with the death of her father adopts and trains a hunting hawk. Yet, somehow this meditation on grief and letting go was on almost every “best of” list from 2014. It deserved to be.
The writing is beautiful, the sadness palpable, and the topics are a strange alchemical mix of the niche, the obscure and the universal. The result is enchanting.
MacDonald weaves together the unlikely topics of coping with her father’s passing, her adoption and training of a goshawk and the life of T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King and The Sword and the Stone, himself a struggling trainer of a hawk. All three have their own narrative and emotional arcs, sometimes disparate, sometimes overlapping, sometimes harmonizing. Her loneliness echoes that of White. The killing instinct of the hawk seems a metaphor for death’s cold pursuit. And the most moving part of the book, her relationship with the hawk, is in part about letting go, trusting, having faith. This is not a religious book, but it is in many ways spiritual. It’s also pastoral and philosophical, introspective. Full of grace and subtlety.
I finished this book almost nine months ago, and then packed it away before a move. I’m flipping through now, re-reading passages I marked. There are many. This, on that killing instinct:
Everything about the hawk is tuned and turned to hunt and kill. Yesterday I discovered that when I suck air through my teeth and make a squeaking noise like an injured rabbit, all the tendons in her toes instantaneously contract, driving her talons into the glove with terrible, crushing force. This killing grip is an old, deep pattern in her brain, an innate response that hasn’t yet found the stimulus meant to release it. Because other sounds provoke it: door hinges, squealing brakes, bicycles with unoiled wheels—and on the second afternoon, Joan Sutherland singing an aria on the radio. Ow. I laughed out loud at that. Simulus: opera. Response: kill. But later these misapplied instincts stop being funny. At just past six o’clock, a small, unhappy wail came from a pram outside the window. Straight away the hawk drove her talons into my glove, ratcheting up the pressure in savage, stabbing spasms. Kill. The baby cries. Kill kill kill.
The things she sees are uninteresting to her. Irrelevant. Until there’s a clatter of wings. We both look up. There’s a pigeon, a woodpigeon, sailing down to roost in a lime tree above us. Time slows. The air thickens and the hawk is transformed. It’s as if all her weapons systems were suddenly engaged. Red cross-hairs. She stands on her toes and cranes her neck. This. This flightpath. This thing, she thinks. This is fascinating. Some part of the hawk’s young brain has just worked something out, and it has everything to do with death.
On her strange connection to the hawk: “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”
And on her role in the killing of these animals she and the hawk are hunting:
Every time the hawk caught an animal, it pulled me back from being an animal into being a human again. That was the great puzzle, and it was played out again and again. How hearts do stop. A rabbit prostrate in a pile of leaves, clutched in eight gripping talons, the hawk mantling her wings over it, tail spread, eyes burning, nape-feathers raised in a tense and feral crouch. And then I’d reach down and put my hand on the bunched muscles of the rabbit, and with the heel of one hand at the back of its head where the fur was soft and tawny, I’d pull once, twice, hard on its back legs with the other, breaking its neck…I had to do this. If I didn’t kill the rabbit, the hawk would sit on top of it and start eating; and at some point in the eating the rabbit would die. That is how goshawks kill. The borders between life and death are somewhere in the taking of their meal. I could not let that suffering happen. Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human.
But the one image that has stuck with me since I first read the book is a passage I either can’t find or doesn’t exist and the image is just an amalgamation of various passages. I see golden threads, the geometry of this hawk as it glides around these open fields in the warm evening light, tracing maps across the landscape. “She is making the hill her own. Mine. Ours.”
I find it hard to explain what about this book—a book about a woman seeking answers in a hawk—I loved so much. But it is a fantastic book.