I don’t normally read books about death and loss, something that comes all too often the older one gets. And mostly I don’t normally read them because all too often they seem insipid, skating across the surface of grief instead of plumbing its depths, holding it close, looking it in the eye. I find it hard to connect with them.
Not so this book.
H is for Hawk is really two stories in one. The main story, compelling and moving, is of Helen Macdonald’s struggle to move through and beyond her overwhelming grief after her father dies suddenly. The secondary story, threaded throughout the first, is her recounting of T.H. White’s failed efforts, some 60 years earlier, to train a goshawk. White I knew as the author of Arthurian novels, The Once and Future King most of all. I had known nothing of goshawks before now.
“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”
Helen and her father shared a deep love of nature. As a child, she became enamored of hawks and falcons, reading every book about them she could get her hands on. At the age of twelve, she pleaded with her parents to go out with a group of falconers, and they agreed. It was her first experience with hawks in the field. Over the years, she became an expert in hawking and falconry. After her father’s death, she decided to buy a goshawk and train it because she came to believe it would help ease her pain.
“But that was not why I needed her. To me she was bright, vital, secure in her place in the world. Every tiny part of her was boiling with life, as if from a distance you could see a plume of steam around her, coiling and ascending and making everything around her slightly blurred, so she stood out in fierce, corporeal detail. The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge.”
After Helen’s research position at Cambridge University ended, she had to leave her university lodgings and find a new job. Through it all, she grew closer to her hawk, Mabel, pulling away from friends and colleagues. She trained Mabel, working with her indoors, gradually taking her outdoors first at night, then during the day. It was indoors one day that she started playing with her hawk, tossing a small ball of paper toward her, surprised when Mabel tossed it back, peeking at Mabel through a tube of cardboard, seeing Mabel peek right back at her.
“No one had ever told me goshawks played. It was not in the books. I had not imagined it was possible. I wondered if it was because no one had ever played with them. The thought made me terribly sad.”
The story of Mabel’s training is interwoven with Helen’s efforts to work through grief, thinking at times that she’s better, realizing then that she’s not. Remembering things about her father, things they did together, things he did for her. Being both uplifted by those memories but also saddened because of remembrances that came to her, unbidden.
“On the way home I felt a great and simple sadness. I missed my dad. I missed him very much. The train curved and sunlight fell against the window, obscuring the passing fields with a mesh of silver light. I closed my eyes against the glare and remembered the spider silk. I had walked all over it and had not seen it. I had not known it was there. It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion; that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them—that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me.”
One of the things I appreciated about this book is that at its end, Helen is not magically cured, all pain swept behind, perfectly restored. Because we all know that’s not how it goes.
“I watch all these things going on, and my heart is salt.”
Nineteen years ago, I lost a dear friend and colleague. It’s a day I will always remember, of hearing the first news at work that something terrible had possibly happened, then finding that it had happened and all of us hoping against hope that our friend had survived. Of learning, finally, that he had not. It reminded me then and reminds me still of those seconds between the moment when you realize you’ve just burned your hand and the moment when the pain explodes. Only that moment went on all day long because we were on a crisis task force and none of us could leave. And so we worked on until night, our hearts raw, knowing we were burned, waiting for the pain to make itself felt.
“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realize that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realize, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”
The memories of that day have softened, all these years later. I can reach out and touch them now and not feel pain. They are like diamonds, tumbled by time, their edges no longer razors. That day and that loss and that friendship changed me. It made me who I am today: someone who always tries, though often imperfectly, to make sure those she cherishes know and understand how important they are. That they are irreplaceable. That they are loved. That they are most loved, perhaps, when they are released to live their own lives and be themselves as fully as they can possibly be.
“Flying the hawk free, unencumbered by the creance, nothing stopping her headlong flight out and away but the lines that run between us; palpable lines, not physical ones: lines of habit, of hunger, of partnership, of familiarity. Of something the old falconers would call love. Flying a hawk free is always scary. It is where you test those lines. And it’s not a thing that’s easy to do when you’ve lost trust in the world, and your heart is turned to dust.”
This is a beautifully written book, poignant and achingly beautiful. I know I’ll be reading it again. I hope you will read it, too.