‘Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.’ (:265).
Helen MacDonald (2014) H is for Hawk.
What is a book about? Often it’s difficult to explain. Sometimes it’s easy. The easy explanation is this is a book about grief, about Helen’s dad dying and through the alchemy of training a young goshawk to hunt she rediscovers herself and learns how to live a grounded life. It’s a love story. From the first pages the reader enters a different world. Helen’s dad has died and she’s doing something totally irrational. She has arranged to meet a man from Northern Ireland and take delivery of a goshawk her dreams are filled with. She has no job. No home. But she does have a hawk. There is a mix-up, of course. She is given a box with the wrong raptor. It’s a perfectly fine bird, bigger and stronger than the one she first set eyes on and fallen in love with, but it’s first love and she has to woo the man to win the bird that she desires.
Helen has a hawk. The hawk she names Mabel also has her. She has to erase herself, enter into the way a goshawk sees the world in a hawkish way. She’s sure she’s become isolated and deranged, but she can’t seem to help herself. As a palimpsest how not to train a fledging gos there is one book The Goshawk by T.H.White that she’s careful to avoid. The more she doesn’t look, the more she needs to look. Some books pick the reader. T.H.White with his chronic insecurity and self-hate entered into a contest between bird and human in which he had to lose himself to win the bird and create a new and better self. He failed, as he failed in many of his other lives as racy author, English gentleman and public-school master. His success as an author, The Once and Future King and The Sword in The Stone, were ways of channelling these failure into his characters’ success. Merlin and the young King Arthur success and failure were aspects of T.H.White. This alchemy of characters and authors extends to Helen. Her biography of White’s failures and success allows her to pick apart her past as a girl that liked to hide under a bush and skulk and hide and watch the world working. Her dad had ribbed her in that proud way parents have about being a spy when she attended Cambridge as a young don. There’s blood on the page but its love.
How can we comprehend love? That is the more difficult narrative. ‘Key to flat. Love Dad.’ Helen’s dad had posted it to her, a year past. ‘”My daughter the absent-minded professor,”’ he said, rolling his eyes.’ That reminded me of a similar note my mum had once sent me when I’d asked her to send me my birth lines. Two words scrawled: Love you. I knew it was true. I’ve got that note somewhere. This is a book that rings with truths. A book about birds that shows what it means to be human. Winner of The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2014.