H is for Hawk

Title: H is for Hawk
Writers : Helen Macdonald
Published: 2014
Genre: Non-fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

H is for Hawk is in parts a memoir, in parts a dissection of T.H. White’s life and review of his book ‘The Goshawk’, and in parts an adventurous journey into the world of goshawks. Helen is devastated when her father passes away unexpectedly leaving her to cope with the grief. Having trained many falcons in her life, she naturally turns to her avian friends to find solace. She chooses to train a goshawk and she sees her own feral temperament reflected in the bird. She buys a baby goshawk and spends days holed up in her apartment making friends with the goshawk and training it.

The focus of the book is mainly on the author training the goshawk. Her hesitation on deciding whether this is a wise thing to do (can she be dealing with another living being when she herself is drowning in grief) and her anxiety when she is choosing the hawk (will the hawk accept her and what if it rejects her) and her fear of failure (“I am overfeeding her” or “I am starving her”) and the ultimate fear of losing the hawk while on a hunt – comes through so well through the pages that at time I almost gasped or cried with Helen. While Helen is training the hawk and teaching it to hunt, she realizes the real reason why she decided to take up this challenge.

I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.

While the main thread of the book is about the goshawk, there is a strong parallel thread about Helen’s grief. She tries to find words to express her grief, share it with her mother and brother and ways to come to terms with it. She reads a lot of books on grief, talks to therapist, goes on a course of anti-depressants but still feels that hole left in her heart. In her attempt to explain her grief, Helen says:

Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It is from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone.

Imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone.

The writing is simply beautiful. Helen has a way of expressing herself – be it the beauty of the wild or the pain in heart – she describes it to beautifully that you are right next to her feeling everything she is feeling.

The author is highly influenced by T.H. White’s ‘The Goshawk’ which she had read as a child (and hated) and she turns back to this book to use a reference when she is training her own hawk. Instead of just sticking to White’s experience of training his hawk, Helen tries to decipher why White went through what he did. His troubled childhood (mother abandons him and never gets his father’s approval), difficult adolescence (he is sent to a boarding school where he is sexually abused), and an even worse adulthood (he realizes he is homosexual and the world doesn’t accept him) and White has to prove himself to the world again and again. His decision of training a hawk is along the same lines – to prove a point rather than for his love for hawks – and that is why White and his hawk suffer through the ordeal and fail miserably in the end.

Let me admit, I had no idea what a goshawk was until I read the book (I still don’t know how to pronounce it, BTW). This world of falcons, hawks and training them to take them on hunts is a whole new world to me which I absorbed with the curiosity of a child. Every object (jesses), technique (whistling to call the hawk back) and the bird’s actions (bating, snaking) in falconry has a word and it was amazing to learn this whole new vocabulary. While this was the part I enjoyed, the part where Helen takes her hawk to hunt pheasants, pigeons and rabbits was disturbing. The author does raise the ethical question of whether it is right to hunt with hawks. Her justification didn’t convince me and I still think it is wrong, but I don’t want that to change my love for the book.

I picked this up with an attitude of ‘not my cup of tea, but let’s this a try’ and was captivated and amazed by the book all the way through. I learnt a lot of new things (alarum is a valid word, though archaic, did you know?) and not just about hawks. I am glad I decided to give this book ‘a try’.

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