H is For Hawk | Helen Macdonald #GBRnonfiction

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.

Facts:

  • 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

Favourite Quotes:

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.

28 thoughts on “H is For Hawk | Helen Macdonald #GBRnonfiction

  1. As you know I loved this book. I didn’t agree with the judgment about grief in my reading group as you know. I sort of feel that is more likely to come from people who haven’t experienced really deep grief. This is not to say such people can’t understand it, but that I can understand such people seeing it theoretically and thinking in terms like chief mourner.

    Anyhow I enjoyed your post as I enjoyed the book. And I still love that cover. Thanks for the link.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Grief is certainly an experience that can bring out all sorts of beliefs and opinions. When a dear friend died suddenly twenty years ago, all sorts of weird ‘who gets to grieve’ stuff happened. She and her former husband had not long divorced and a number of her family and friends didn’t think it was right that he was grieving too, that somehow his grief was negated by the divorce.

      We are coming up to the five year anniversary’s of losing a couple of dear family members and it is true that grief does eventually turn into ‘simply love’, although it’s still tinged with sadness I find.

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      1. Oh that’s a shame Brona. Just because people divorce – unless it’s a truly bitter one – doesn’t mean they don’t care about each other, particularly if one dies out of time. Were there children involved?

        Last month was the second anniversary of my mum’s death, and I still miss her so much and have waves of grief, but, they are less frequent than the first year so I guess I’m gradually getting used to not having her around. But, oh my, how I miss being able to tell her all those things that, really, only she would have been interested in, like little bits of news about the kids and grandkids, and little things I’m doing. Our parents are so precious.

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        1. Yes there were children involved and it was still quite fresh, so in the minds of some, it was too much to deal with. And obviously the children needed their dad nearby at such a heartbreaking time.

          I’m glad you can see some easing of your grief Sue. It really does take time. We are coming up to five without my father-in-law and we still miss him, although the sense of loss is not as keen as it was. Mr Books used to speak with him weekly and really misses those talks too.

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          1. That’s what I was thinking. How awful for those children if their father didn’t show any grieving? How would that make them feel. The impact on him would have been huge – his own complex emotions, and suddenly being solely responsible not only for the children but also for helping them though their additional loss.

            Five years since your FIL died? I can’t believe it. But yes, it sure does take time. And, as my parents lived here, they were “in” my life in the sense that nearly everything I did was with the consciousness of them. Two groups I’m r, mum was in too, which is great in a way because they all loved her. Their memories of her is so warming. (And actually today is her birthday.)

            Liked by 1 person

  2. In a previous life I was the editor of a weekly bird magazine and used to commission articles on falconry, so this book had a lot of appeal. I read it with my book group and we all loved it. But none of us (if I remember correctly) had any real experience of grief and so I think we were more focused on how MacDonald’s journey, her dedication to training, her resilience and her honesty. I also enjoyed her biography of TH White because he was so lauded by many and yet some of his training tactics and methods would be considered dubious and cruel today.

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    1. Certainly Macdonald struggled with the cruelty of White’s training methods, even as a young child. I found her observation about ‘how many of our classic books on animals were by gay writers who wrote of their relationships with animals in lieu of human loves of which they could not speak’ very poignant.

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  3. Et tu, Brutus. Coming back aftet Covid has been hard for me.
    What a fascinating title. I loved your review and the quote is so piercing.
    Whatever works for you to write, keep it up. You have always delighted me and influenced me in my reads.
    I will keep an eye for this one.

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      1. Brona. Thanks a lot for all the comments and for reading my past posts. Fifer and Hazel are memorable characters for sure. I am glad you are bouncing back from this challenging period of our lives. I remember having seen the whereabouts where you work and it’s beautiful. I hope you get a moment without rain to take pics outdoors yes, it’s fun! I forgot that it’s winter for you, LOL.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I read this book when my Mum was dying. I don’t understand how anyone could say that ‘Macdonald ignored or was insensitive to her mother’s grieving.’ She was expressing her own grief. I was struck by her words:

    ‘I thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so. So many of them had been quests inspired by grief or sadness…Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions,’ wrote John Muir. “Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.”
    Now I know this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other human hands to hold.’

    Great book.

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    1. There were so many lovely, poignant, meaningful quotes that can be pulled from this book. This was one I underlined too.

      As Sue wondered, perhaps those who have yet to experience a great loss, cannot fully understand how individual it is. For me it was clear that she was aware that her mother and brother were both grieving too, but this was her story; her journey. Certainly grief can feel like being in a bubble world outside of everyday life; Macdonald certainly captured that sensation as she experienced it.

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  5. This sounds a fascinating read Brona, but while the nature part attracts me, I don’t know if I’m up to the parts which reflect on grief, at least for now. But I do agree, it is such an individual thing, different people may feel it as deeply, yet their responses will vary, as will the ‘way’ they feel it. I am going to bear this one in mind but will look it up only when I’m up to facing it.

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  6. I really wanted to love this book, but I found it difficult to read and draining, despite some richly descriptive narrative. It was the training of Mabel that made it so difficult for me to read. I am not comfortable with keeping wild creatures in captivity and in my naivete I hadn’t realised just what training a hawk entailed. I found it difficult too because it is so personal as she exposed just how bereft she was, how she suffered the loss of her father and became depressed almost to the state of madness. It’s a book unlike any other that I’ve read, about wildness, grief and mourning, and obsession, which made it heavy reading for me.

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  7. Wonderful review Brona. I have been planning on reading this for some time. But as you know grief in real life has been plaguing me for a while and I am not sure if I can tackle a book on grief and loss …..but maybe I should try a bit and soon!

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    1. I couldn’t read this for a while either. After the death of my father-in-law nearly five years ago, this kind of grief memoir was too much. For me the comment, “All the grief had turned into something different. It was simply love” resonated strongly. It felt like we have finally reached that place too. I hope you come to a more peaceful place one day soon xo

      Liked by 1 person

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