H is for Hawk and the Transformative Power of Grief

Scots pine tress (Pinus sylvestris) in a forest, East Wretham Heath, Breckland. Panoramic Images / Getty
Scots pine tress (Pinus sylvestris) in a forest, East Wretham Heath, Breckland. Panoramic Images / Getty
12 April, 2015

While I was reading Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, news arrived from Bengaluru that a friend, dear and cherished, had passed away, suddenly, with an illness, yes, but with no special warning. It conjures, as Macdonald says in the book—among other things, an explication on mortality—a confusing mix of emotions. At first, a distrustful denial, an anger, a guilt for time wasted, for everything left unsaid. All at once I rummaged through my phone for messages we’d exchanged and through my head for stories and conversations. The last time we met was in January, with promises and plans to meet. Now, I would never see him again.

I am learning how to cope from a book on grief and falconry.

H is for Hawk recently won a slew of literary laurels, including the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book Award, and I approached it with tentativeness. It has happened before, that a book falls so short of its hype that it’s like being, heart in your mouth, in an airplane plummet. And falconry? It was something about which I knew so little, not least because of my massive disinterest in the subject. I don’t frequently read books about animals—does Watership Down count? I can think of no other on my shelf. But this drew me in from the very first page, with a description of a Cambridge landscape, the Brecklands, the broken lands, where wet fen gives way to parched sand. A land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs. “There are ghosts here,” writes Macdonald, and she is there too, restless spirit, at 5:00 on a sleepless morning, going to see goshawks.

I was fascinated. I know nothing about these birds (rather, most birds), but something about her telling thrilled me. Her language is clean, clear, precise as a knife. A line clings to memory:

Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes but not often, and you don't get to say when or how.

For a memoir, H is for Hawk bursts beyond its genre. It morphs alternatively into historical archive, zoological monograph, disquisition on nationhood, and literary reimagining, with, at its heart, a deep and profound sorrow. Running like a fault line through the book is Macdonald’s grief at losing her father, suddenly, without warning, or illness.

Bereavement. From the Old English bereafian, meaning to deprive of, take away, seize, rob. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone.

Grief, that mighty spectre that takes its own individual shape, is dealt with here through a quest to fly a goshawk. It begins with a recurring dream, of a bird “beautiful like a granite cliff or thundercloud.” From then on, says Macdonald, the hawk was inevitable. And we follow her journey, tentative, afraid, drawn into its wild strangeness. Obsessed with birds as a child, and though a skilled falconer, this is Macdonald’s first attempt at training a goshawk, those “things of death and difficulty.” We share her apprehension, her excitement when she acquires a young bird, all eyes on the creature pulled out of the box:

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.

Alongside her journey she reimagines another—that of the troubled writer TH White and his avian experiences documented in The Goshawk. Having read, and disliked, the book as a youngster, she approached it as an adult with a more empathetic eye. Their autobiographies intertwine, his bumbling inexperience, her careful, paranoid planning, while she brings to pitch-perfect light his abused (and abusive) existence. “White was one of the loneliest men alive.” And she, perhaps, was the loneliest woman.

All this she projects on the hawk’s role as metaphor for outsider, and loner, trying to gather strength and fortitude through its solitariness. The training helps her “not to see the world like a hawk,” but to look at it anew. And this is where her prose is luminescent—in her description of landscape, and sky, of creatures that live in the wild, under stones, and in moss, in trees, and hedgerow. The marvellously layered complexity of elements that make up a personal cartography:

Cow parsley. Knapweed. Wild burdock. The argillaceous shimmer of tinder fine clay. Drifts of chalk beneath. Yellowhammers chipping in the hedges. Cumulus rubble. The maritime light of this island, set as it is under a sky mirrored and uplit by the sea.

Yet we always return to grief. Toward the end, Macdonald writes:

[there’s a] dark forest to which all things lost must go. I’d wanted to slip across the borders of this world into that wood and bring back the hawk that White had lost … And part of me had hoped too that somewhere in that other world was my father ... I know now what those dreams had meant, the ones of a hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world. I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father, find him and bring him home.

A book on grief carries a peculiar sad universality, for which one of us has not known loss? Or has not wished to travel to the dark forest. To bring back. Yet, it wasn't within one of these descriptions that I drew most comfort. It was the point at which Macdonald says that one day, she found her grief had transformed into love. In the end, it is all we can hope for.

Janice Pariat is the author of Seahorse: A Novel and Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories for which she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Young Writer Award and the Crossword Award for Fiction in 2013. She is currently based in New Delhi.