Image Credit: Random House, 2015
I found out about You Are What You Read through Nouse familiar Jenna Luxon, who is also a close friend of mine. Having expressed an interest in writing for the paper, she told me about this series of book reviews. Writing about a book in the context of my own life appealed to me greatly and the natural choice was undoubtedly Helen Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk.
After the sudden news of her father’s death and the emotional fallout that ensues, Helen decides, ostensibly on a whim, to purchase and train a goshawk, whom she names Mabel. As she embarks on this training, it becomes clear that her desire for a bird is about more than just companionship or consolation.
To call this book a memoir is somewhat reductive. Yes, it is autobiographical, but it also contains enough historical and practical information for it to fit relatively neatly into various genres. It is at once a chronology of Helen’s grieving process and thus a meditation on life and death; a recount of both her life and her father’s and their love of nature.
It is also a guide about training a hawk; a history of falconry and a glossary of its terminology; and a biography of the author T. H. White, whose fractious and tragic relationship with his own goshawk (detailed in his 1951 book The Goshawk) is told parallel to Helen’s taming of Mabel. She provides a huge amount of backstory on White, detailing his struggles with sexuality and his feelings of isolation and loneliness, making both stories feel intertwined.
I first read this book about four years ago during a particularly lonely time in my life. I had finished secondary school and had to leave my closest friends, who went on to different schools. After a failed attempt at passing my AS Levels, I changed schools again, leaving behind the new life I had started to build in that year.
H is for Hawk gave me great comfort during that time. I don’t think I understood it then, but Helen’s articulations of loss and inner turmoil were deeply relatable. The way she uses hunting with Mabel as a means to almost annihilate herself, to escape her trauma by entering the world of the hawk, resonated with my unconscious desire to free myself from the pain in which I felt caged. To be part of something bigger and not feel trapped inside of myself.
Helen describes in uncompromising detail the grisly realities of hawking, how it forces you to confront death on a regular basis. It’s thrilling, but towards the end of the book, she realises how self-destructive the desire for self-annihilation can be, how it kept her from facing reality.
In the process of immersing herself in the hawk’s world, she lost her connection with the human world. There is constant mirroring throughout the book between Helen and Mabel – the hawk’s distrust of people and Helen’s bouts of irrational anger, both of them eating the meat caught on their hunting trips, the hawk’s flights into the woods and Helen’s withdrawal from social life. She wanted to become the hawk.
It is both the unflinching honesty with which the depths of her sorrow are described and the journey towards healing that makes this such a poignant and hopeful book. It showed me that the darkness is not to be feared, but perhaps more importantly, nor is the light.
Both must be embraced in order to experience life fully. I have re-read H is for Hawk numerous times, and with every read the book has continued to reveal deeper insight for my own life. Seventeen-year-old me didn’t understand the complexities of love and grief the way that twenty one-year-old me does, and I’m sure my understanding will continue to develop and change.
Towards the end of the book, Helen makes a pilgrimage to the cottage that T. H. White lived in at the time he was training his goshawk. She sees a man kneeling in the garden, and for an instant, she feels the man is Mr. White himself. In a brief reverie, she imagines what it would be like to get to know the man and, in turn, learn more about her long-dead hawking companion of sorts, to bring him back somehow.
But, then she stops and decides to release that desire, to her immense relief. For me, this sums up the most important takeaway from this book: Our romanticisation of loneliness and suffering, of mysterious people and ‘wild’ animals, may serve us to a point, but it is no way to live freely. The reality is quite less complicated and much more vibrant than that. When you start to see the world for what it is rather than what your ideas about it are, that is true freedom.