In an attempt to get back into blogging about individual books again, I have decided to revive the ‘favourite’ format I was using pre-pandemic. I’m not sure why I stopped as I found it a useful way to focus my thoughts on what I had been reading.
H is for Hawk is part nature writing, part grief memoir, and part biography (of the writer and trainer of a goshawk, T H White). When Macdonald’s father dies, she decides to retreat into the wild, to return to nature for solace which leads her to buying a baby goshawk to train.
This was not as crazy as it first seems.
Macdonald is a naturalist and had been training hawks for years, so in many ways she was turning to something she knew for comfort in her time of need. But goshawks are harder, much harder to train than other hawks. Perhaps it wasn’t solace and comfort she was looking for afterall. Perhaps it was punishment she was looking for, or maybe it was a challenge so all-consuming that it would dull the pain she was feeling.
Writing this book nearly seven years later was a way for Macdonald to stand back and view the process she had taken to come to terms with her grief.
Some memoirs about grief have a power because they’re written inside that time. And some, like mine, are written afterwards, looking back.The Guardian | 6 Nov 2014 | Interview with Stephen Moss
I am constantly drawn to grief and loss memoirs, so I was always going to read this one, one day. But it took Macdonald’s Vesper Flights in 2021 to bring me in close. I loved her nature writing, her passion and enthusiasm, her care and compassion for every living creature and the environments that nourish them. I was therefore curious to see what she also had to say about something so personal and so individual as grief.
Most of us already know the hard way that each grief is different, not only from another person’s grief, but we also grieve each loss differently. One loss does not necessarily prepare us for the next. There are some broad stages of processing grief that we recognise, but how and when we proceed through them, or not, is entirely idiosyncratic.
One conversation I had with Sue @Whispering Gums as I was reading H is for Hawk revealed that some of her book group felt that Macdonald ignored or was insensitive to her mother’s grieving. I was conscious of this as I read the second half of the book and could see how some might take that view. It is easy for grieving to become a self-centred, even selfish journey. I suspect time of life, the relationship you had, or wished you’d had with the person who has died plus other factors to do with health, career, family and friends and how the person died, come into play.
However Macdonald herself says in the last third of the book, after a visit with her mum. ‘I could not hear my mother’s pain. I could not feel my own‘. That’s how grief can take us sometimes.
The novelist Robert Harris, who was the chair of the judging panel for the 2014 Costa Prize, which H is for Hawk won not only the biography award but also the overall book of the year, said
Several people felt very passionately that it haunted them and they would never forget it and everyone agreed it was brilliantly written, wonderful kind of muscular prose – really precise, scalpel-like prose and staring at grief with the unblinking eye of a hawk.Source
Part of the process that Macdonald went through, was to take a closer look at her childhood ‘hero’ T H White, the author of the Arthurian classic, The Once and Future King (1958) as well as nature memoir The Goshawk (1951) a book where White describes the training of his hawk via traditional methods. It was not a success. During Macdonald’s time training her goshawk, Mabel, her understanding and feelings towards White changed and evolved into a far more complex, nuanced appreciation of a flawed human being.
I will never train a hawk or spend time in nature the way that Macdonald has and does. A walk in a park or along a beach, time in the garden, and the occasional bushwalk is about as wild as I get. However, the things that people do to come to terms with their grief endlessly fascinates me.
- Winner of the Costa Book Of The Year 2014
- Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize 2014 (now called Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction)
- Winner Prix Du Meilleur Livre Étranger
The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world.
All the grief had turned into something different. It was simply love.
Favourite Character: Mabel the goshawk (who sadly died in 2014).
Favourite or Forget: Unforgettable. Macdonald can write and I really enjoyed the mix of memoir, nature writing and biography. It was a natural fit, each section ebbing and flowing around and through each other.
Favourite Reading Moment: H is for Hawk was my walking backpack book for the first half of 2022. This is us enjoying some quiet reading time in my favourite Cafe d’Yvoire earlier this year.
Title: H is For Hawk Author: Helen Macdonald Cover Illustration: Chris Wormell ISBN: 9780099575450 Imprint: Vintage Published: 10 February 2015 (originally published 31st July 2014) Format: Paperback Pages: 320
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.