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.”