I am not one of those who say they wish they wrote another person’s book, but when I think of Helen Macdonald’s memoir about the goshawk, I find myself thinking that she’s written the kind of book I’ve always wanted to write.
H is for Hawk is a lightning bolt of a book. It is powerful and transcendent, and you can tell that Macdonald wrote from the heart. It must have been the kind of book that came with preternatural force, stood with a club in its hands over the author and forced them to scribble away. Imagine this: the writer has just lost her parent. To overcome her crushing grief, she adopts a goshawk. Now, the goshawk – adeptly and convincingly profiled in the book – is an agent of death. That’s what it lives for. Macdonald describes her, amongst other things, as a ‘creature with baleful eyes and death in her foot’. At one point in the book Macdonald plays rabbit sounds on the radio and the bird instantly awakes from deep sleep, ready pounce. As she overcomes death, death incarnate comes to be the grieving author’s companion. A surprising arc forms out of this. Slowly we see that only by facing death head-on – understanding its makings, its fearful symmetry, its oracular composition – can the author acquire the means to overcome its handiwork. I can’t think of any plot more convincing.
As if this were not enough, Macdonald overlays the book with an exploration of the work of T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King, who was himself a bird watcher of note. The triangulated struggles of the author, Mr White and the goshawk meld together in a strange but fascinating marriage. I felt drawn into these struggles because I myself once loved birds and wanted to become a falconer. Now, birds are only present in my fiction. I no longer bird-watch or try to touch them. I don’t understand how this happened, except to think that after a while, other pleasures – playing football, then reading, then writing – took over and, I lost touch with the avian world. But Macdonald’s portrayal of the life of birds, of their wonderful biological capabilities, awoke in me a desire to reconnect with birds.
Macdonald’s writing is lyrical, profoundly moving and always assured in its language. She invents dramatic tension and suffuses it with an evocative language that begs to be read aloud. Yet, the one weakness of the book comes from this same fount – in Macdonald’s insistence on the present tense form. This offers a false immediacy, and sentimentalizes moments which, were they cast in the actual narrative form in which historical stories ought to be told, would have stood uncoloured by the false ink of melodrama. But this is the form that is increasingly appealing to contemporary writers – a hill on which many will die. Despite this, Macdonald’s book still manages to soar like the goshawk. Why not? She climbed above most of her peers by her choice of a very complex story, then raised the wings of her prose with sublime poetry. A minor storm could not do much to impede her soaring flight!
Image © Steve Loya