H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Vintage Books) is an award-winning (the Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction, the Costa Book of the Year prize) story of healing with a hawk. It is not a new release but it has long transcended the time barrier. It is the kind of book that you buy and keep aside to read when the time is right.
The book’s a heart-warming tale tipped with cruel talons. Macdonald loses her beloved father and it comes to a stage where she cannot live with the pain of that loss or at least, no longer live a normal life. Sensing herself slide into deep depression, this academic, an affiliate at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, who trains and flies hawks as a hobby, buys herself a female captive-bred, ten-week-old, Czech-Finnish-German goshawk for 800 pounds, and names the far- from- amiable bird, Mabel.
In the long and oftentimes dangerous process of training the hawk to get used to her (the bird used to freeze in horror the first few times she glimpsed the author), then fly short distances and return to the owner’s fist, and then the ultimate test of flying Mabel without jesses, Macdonald offers us insights into the world of the wild goshawk, as well as into her own hurting heart.
You read the following lines and you know this is not going to be just another animal- as-comforter book: She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.
At first, the sheer unorthodox notion of coming to terms with loss while training a young hawk, grips you. We have heard of dogs, cats, budgies all acting as stress alleviators who help their humans heal, but a hawk? After which, it is the author’s polished style that keeps you gripped.
It’s a series of small reveals for the reader. We realize that getting Mabel to a semi-domestic stage involves a considerable degree of isolation, and that suits the grieving Macdonald all too well. They both seek safety in not being seen. However, she eventually realizes that avoiding human company is not the best policy in the long run, and starts to take her hawk to small gatherings. Macdonald and Mabel forge a peculiar intimacy, a relationship that is rocky at virtually all given points, one where the bird is more than likely to take off into the blue sky, without once looking down at her owner. Soon, it is difficult for Macdonald to distinguish between the hawk and her heart.
So. Is a goshawk , “a thing of blood and death and gore, the same as a falcon?” Apparently not. The former is more unpredictable, more liable to fly away, far far away and never return, if given the opportunity, as also to maintain a tautly reserved distance from all humans, including its owner. Verily, the bastard offspring of a flaming torch and an assault rifle, in the author’s striking words.
The hidden double bonanza in this book is that Macdonald refers to and quotes often from T.H. White’s book on falconry, The Goshawk. Much of the reading populace knows and loved White’s The Once and Future King. But this book on training goshawks, written by White in a troubled frame of mind and hence becoming a somewhat troubling work, is by no means the last or best word in flying hawks. However, even as Macdonald sees it, so the does the reader: there is a tenuous connect between White and Macdonald, both dwelling hugely and silently on their losses, aspirations, dreams and their healing.
This is a story penned by a skilled and gutsy falconer and a gifted writer. This a story about training the heart without taming. This is an intelligent and incredibly moving book.
Sheila Kumar is an independent writer and editor, as well as author of a collection of short stories titled Kith and Kin (Rupa Publications)