There's one kind of pain that drips like untimely rain from above and then gradually percolates our skin to enter crevices inside us we didn't know existed. Then there's another kind which emanates from within the centre of our being like molten magma and erupts out of us leaving visible, corporeal marks on our flesh. This book, H is for Hawk, is that dazzling, volatile maestoso that exists at the meeting point of these two kinds.
H is for Hawk is a searing, soaring, deeply felt memoir of writer, poet, naturalist Helen Macdonald, who when faced with the sudden and unexpected demise of her father decides to train a goshawk – a fierce forest-dwelling bird of prey, “nineteen to twenty-four inches” long – to cope with her grief. She doesn’t mince words when addressing this profound sense of loss, and the euphonious lyricism of her prose makes her enduring despair easy to identify with: “Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.”
This is a particularly truculent and masochistic territory, because these birds are avowedly untamable, unpredictable, and bloodthirsty even. But suffering takes us to untenable crossroads where we learn how to survive again. She writes, “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.” This may seem like madness, but MacDonald is a skilled falconer and unknowingly she had been training to find a method to guide this madness to denouement all her life.
You can read some of the best works of nature writing, personal history, books on life, loss, society, and culture, and then come back to this one and discover it’s doing all of it and more inside its 300 pages.
I had briefly encountered MacDonald a few years ago at a book signing and told her about the time my grandfather had died and how I and my grandmother had fought over the ownership of his black thick-rimmed glasses that he always used to wear like children. It was our collective goshawk. A cross too heavy so we didn’t want to see the other carrying it.
“Who has it now?” she had asked. “She does,” I had said. “But after her, it’ll be with you,” she had said with a rare kindness in her voice that I’ll always be indebted to. Sometimes burying your ghosts is not an option, especially when they can fly through a crack in the sky. H is also for Haunting.