Animalistic is a trait both revered and reviled by human civilisation, depending upon which side of the spectrum you are. No matter which side you are, though, you’d still have gone through life deriving meanings from and attaching meanings to the animal kingdom, which speaks to the senses like no other.
Helen Mac Donald’s H is for Hawk teems with hidden meanings of worlds within worlds. But for the essence of the book to manifest, you have to step back from the scores of ideas washing ashore with each wave and try to see the bigger picture. The book itself is a search for meaning—meaning in loss, meaning in wildness—meanings that she, in a thought-provoking inversion, rejects at the end, revealing them for what they are: a desire to merge the self with the natural world and superimpose ourselves upon it.
From the perspective of the writer’s craft, this book weaves together contrasting genres, blending in biography and memoir with particularly detailed and impassioned descriptions of nature. It is nature writing at its best, submerged ‘neath the surface and one with it. But it’s also memoir writing at its finest, incredibly moving and visually entrancing, drawing you into her grief. The entire effect is that of floating inside a bubble, looking at the universe from a world that is decidedly not your own—that could disintegrate with a soft plop and yet you feel inexorably trapped, compelled to stay inside it.
We all cope with grief in myriad, unconventional ways. And that is what Helen does here. Her world falls apart when her father dies. But instead of leaning upon other loved ones, what she chooses is a hawk for a companion. If, like me, your knowledge of hawks and falconry is quite limited, you’d find a whole new universe in here, in all the details of the predators and their keepers. But more than that, you’d find it exceptionally riveting, soul-capturing in the way that Helen slides into the very skin of Mabel, her goshawk. Though Mabel’s thoughts can only be conjured in Helen’s imagination (as she admits) you cannot help but find yourself in the mind of a goshawk. There is a sense of time slowing down, of your heart beating in tandem with the hawk’s, of drinking in every vividly conjured detail, being in that exact moment. This is perhaps Helen’s greatest feat that she makes you see and feel more, so much more—quite the hallmark of supreme literature.
In the midst of all this is a biography of TH White, author of the famous Arthurian novels, among them the memorable The Sword in the Stone. But the reason White is woven into this story is his book The Goshawk, a failure by all accounts, but a book that Helen can’t let go of. She gives myriad reasons for that, but as you move in and out of both lives, you realise that White’s loneliness speaks to Helen’s own loneliness at the time; his failures with Gos speak to her own fears. For it is more an exploration of the inner worlds of White, a reading between the lines, a stitching together of bird, man and woman.
There is so much to this book that space and words are a constraint in being able to pick up each brilliant facet and hold it to light. Perhaps, this line from the book may say it best:
“She is learning a particular way of navigating the world, and her map is coincident with mine. Memory and love and magic.”
And a whole world spun around it.
(This article was first published in the Shelf Life column in Financial Chronicle.)