Natural-born killer brings grieving author back to life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 August, 2014, 8:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 August, 2014, 8:02am

H is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
Jonathan Cape

Death runs like a tangled thread throughout the pages of Helen Macdonald's gripping new book, H is for Hawk, which blends her brutally honest, sometimes tortured account of dealing with grief and - in a deliberate decision to take on a challenge - her fascinating struggles to tame one of nature's most revered killers: a goshawk.

She also cleverly weaves into the narrative a biography of tortured English novelist T.H. White, whose book The Goshawk - detailing his unsuccessful efforts to train his bird, Gos - fired her imagination for falconry as an eight year-old and later inspired her own attempt.

The Cambridge university historian, poet and falconer saw her cosy, ordered world fall apart when her father, press photographer Alisdair Macdonald, died from a heart attack while on assignment one stormy night in London.

"For weeks I felt I was made of dully burning metal," she writes. "I was convinced, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that if I'd been put on a bed or a chair I'd have burned right through."

Desperate to overcome her deepening depression, she goes out for walks in the countryside, recalling fragmented images of her father teaching her nine-year-old self the importance of patience as they waited to see sparrowhawks.

She was 12 when she saw her first goshawk in the woods, after begging her parents to let her join some falconers for a day. "Twenty minutes after we'd set out, it happened - the thing I expected, but for which I was entirely unprepared," she writes. "A goshawk killed a pheasant. It was a short brutal dive from an oak into a mess of wet hedge … Deep in the muddled darkness, six copper pheasant feathers glowed in a cradle of blackthorn. I picked them free, one by one ... It was death I had seen. I wasn't sure what it had made me feel."

Four months after her father's death, she reacquaints herself with White's book and, with a jolt, realises she shares a sort of kinship with him - the same urge to train a hawk.

White - best known for his 1958 Arthurian fantasy novel The Once and Future King, which inspired the musical Camelot - was a frustrated English teacher at a public school in Stowe in Buckinghamshire and a closet homosexual. A miserable childhood and repeated frustrations in love led him to take up falconry as a distraction from his unhappiness.

Macdonald's deftly handled, sympathetic account of White's heroic failure - his goshawk vanished one stormy night and never returned - cleverly parallels her own fears and challenges while taming her own bird, Mabel.

Macdonald drives to Scotland and pays £800 for a goshawk - "Thirty ounces of death in a feathered jacket" - and becomes mesmerised as it is carefully removed from its carrying crate.

Her acute, punchy descriptions vividly bring her narrative to life. "Her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porcupine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick … a fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary."

She returns to Cambridge - the bird filling the house "with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent" - stocks up the freezer with rabbit meat and prepares for the long, slow challenge ahead. "To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so gain the ability to predict what it will do next," she writes.

"Eventually you don't see the hawk's body language at all. You seem to feel what it feels. The hawk's apprehension becomes your own. As the days passed and I put myself in the hawk's wild mind to tame her, my humanity was burning away."

She is aware she will need to be patient in her struggles with the goshawk - a real bruiser among the many birds of prey. "In real life, goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats," she writes. "Bigger yes, but bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier and much, much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they're the birdwatchers' dark grail."

Training and letting Mabel loose for the first time thrills her and reminds her of gambling, "though the stakes were infinitely bloodier. At its heart was a willed loss of control … I had found my addiction on that day out with Mabel."

H is for Hawk is often touching in its simplicity, such as her spare account of holding her father's lifeless hand for one last time, or the description of her instinctive reaction - after Mabel bloodies her deadly talons on a pheasant - as she reaches down and starts "unconsciously as a mother helping child with her dinner, plucking the pheasant with the hawk".

Macdonald's infectious curiosity and eye for telling detail, unflinching honesty about her seesawing highs and lows all combine to create an exhilarating journey of self discovery.