Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month

4th August 2014

MacDonald Helen (c) Marzena Pogorzaly colour wideHelen Macdonald by Marzena Pogorzaly

Helen Macdonald; H is for Hawk
320 pages, hardback.

Review by Laura Beatty.

If the hawk has dropped out of our alphabet now, then we should put it back. For centuries it flickered between the worlds of the living and the dead – ancient messenger, guide, companion, possessor of the keenest sight – through most of Western mythology.

This is a book that revives that tradition. It balances the live individual hawk at its centre, hunting in Cambridgeshire fields, with its shadow counterpart, making the old passage from one world to the next that was for so long its mythological territory. It is a passionate book, both in its suffering and in its emotional commitment, and it makes these crossings back and forth between the living and the dead, for the period of time it takes to train a hawk, which is exactly the same amount of time, as it turns out, that it takes to come to terms with bereavement.

Reading it I had the feeling of setting out on an extreme voyage, following a hawk, through a passage of savage internal weather, in the company of someone used to living at full tilt; soaking, despairing, running between squalls and battling on – raging back at the storm sometimes, but enduring and in the end returning. It is a brave lesson in survival.

Helen Macdonald is a writer, illustrator, academic and falconer of some distinction. The book opens with her stalled over an event that she can’t bring herself to accept. Her father has died unexpectedly and with his death, time, as she describes it, stops moving forwards. It becomes instead something almost solid, ‘a thick fluid, half air, half glass, that flows both ways and sends ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards’. At the mercy of memory which casts her continually back, away from the forward push of life, onto the barren place of loss, she decides to train a hawk, as a distraction and while she is waiting for time to pick up again.

She drives to Scotland with £800 in her pocket and collects a baby goshawk, the most wilful hawk to train, the most impossible, a decision that has the feeling of folktale about it – the bargain struck, the impossible task, for the impossible result. Training it will take huge reserves of patience, which is another good reason for doing it, because patience is her father’s particular legacy. He had explained to her, when she was nine, ‘the most important thing of all’, ‘that when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it, and be patient’. Patience, of course, is related to passion like a father is related to a daughter. They share the same root.

So through the days of the book, Macdonald trains her hawk. She absents herself from ordinary life. She draws the curtains in her sitting room, tells her friends not to call, and sits down to wait for the hawk to tame. She gives it a human name, Mabel, but it fills her house with wildness, ‘as a bowl of lilies fills a room with scent’. And its wildness fills the book.

‘Cappuccino samurai’. Macdonald describes for us its outlandish glamour, the clicking of its eye when it blinks, its dinosaur feet, and the horror of it bating repeatedly, its instinct for the sky contained in a room where there are sofas and curtains and walls. Then later as it begins to settle, she describes its interest in dust and flies, its few heartbreaking human traits, its playing, its moods, its startling ability to distinguish between pictures of partridges and those of songbirds, and its chilling response to any high pitched noise that resembles the rabbit’s death-cry – opera, squealing brakes, a baby crying in a pram – the talons instinctively driving into the glove. Kill, kill, kill.

At one level this is very clear-eyed, very matter of fact, often very funny. The process is arcane, technical, physically thrilling. The language is passionate in its commitment but very clean. There are fascinating passages about the history of falconry, or about the hawk in folklore and in literature. There is a vast amount of information about practice, about paraphernalia. But at bottom there is something much wider, much darker going on here.

I had Yeats’s poem at the back of my mind when I read this book. There is the something of the terror of anarchy about it, the widening gyre, the loss of contact, the spinning out of control. This is not a book about a cosy domestication. Underneath all the cool expertise, in the darkened Cambridge sitting-room two trapped psyches stare each other out with mad intensity, the hawk so alien it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

“… beak open, eyes blazing… The goshawk is staring at me in mortal terror, and I can feel the silences between both out heartbeats coincide. Her eyes are luminous, silver in the gloom. Her beak is open. She breathes hot hawk breath in my face. It smells of pepper and musk and burned stone. Her feathers are half-raised and her wings half-open, and her scaled yellow toes and curved black talons grip the glove tightly. It feels like I’m holding a flaming torch. I can feel the heat of her fear on my face. She stares. She stares and stares.”

The passage, like so much of this book, has the electric charge of a thunderstorm. Two parallel worlds, the human and the feral, fizz and spark off each other. There is an exchange taking place here, as Macdonald knows. The technical term for training a hawk is to ‘man’ it. In the nineteenth century it was a given that while the hawk took on some of the human, the falconer (and by extension society) repossessed some of the wild – its power, its ferocity, its freedom.

‘I don’t look at her,’ Macdonald says of the staring hawk. ‘What I am doing is concentrating very hard on the process of not being there.’ To tame a hawk the first thing you have to do is ‘become invisible’. This is doubly convenient. To escape, to disappear from a life which only hurts, is what Macdonald most wants. So that is what she does. She makes a comprehensive exchange. She drops through her own text, like a falling hawk, to appear again fleetingly, now and then, in odd encounters, flickering in and out of the following pages, like you might see a bird jinking in and out between the trees. She becomes wild.

There is a great literary trade in tourism of the wild at the moment. There are many books offering a spell in this or that wilderness, watching safely and secondhand, this or that creature, in this or that place or time. What we inheritors of the 19thC have forgotten, is that unmediated wildness is not for us. These exchanges are the territory of myth, of fairy tale at its scariest. Metamorphosis, crossing into the wild, is dangerous. You only do it when you are desperate because it comes at a terrible price.

Towards the end of the second half of the book there is a short digression into the Tale of Sir Orfeo, a Middle English reworking of the Orpheus myth, in which Orfeo, unable to cope with the loss of his wife, gives up his human responsibilities and un-civilises. He goes back to the forest, to live instead in the no-place, the parallel reality of myth, which is just another way of saying the stalled time of passion, in this case the passion of grief.

This place where time solidifies and you leave ordinary life, where you go backwards just as easily as you go forwards, is where H is for Hawk exists. Its shape is that of a miniature myth, complete with shipwreck and shape-shifting, and voyage to the underworld. And like all other-world journeys there has to be a guide, a companion, who has made the journey before. So Macdonald half chooses, half finds herself haunted by T H White, writer, troubled homosexual, falconer, author (among other things) of The Goshawk. ‘When I trained my own hawk,’ she says, ‘ a little space opened, like a window through leaves, onto this other life, in which was a man who was hurt …. I was having a quiet conversation of sorts, with the deeds and works of a long-dead man’. So this book is also an examination of another difficult life, another attempt to escape the human and disappear, to un-civilize. They make the descent into their separate Underworlds side by side.

This is one of the book’s greatest strengths. Macdonald is generous with quotations from White’s life and writings, so we see and hear him constantly. It is a vivid and moving biographical portrait and it results in a book that feels like the product of more than one mind in crisis – a sort of collaboration of hurt – bigger, better and more useful than the small particularity of the individual story.

But for all its talk of madness, this is a very sane book. Even as she side-slips out of humanity, bating and raging against loss, against life, putting herself at its margins, still Macdonald ties herself in with long lines of parallel, like you hold a hawk with creances and the leash. This is a book that understands the central contradiction of our condition; that we are all connected, all alone. And it tests those lines of connection constantly through parallel. There are similarities everywhere. The Photo journalist (her father’s profession) is like the birdwatcher. Orfeo, the mythic king, is like T H White, who is like Helen Macdonald. The German bombing raids connect with the hawk flying which connects with her father’s own war. Most sinister of all, the falconer coldly killing for her hawk is connected to the interrogator and the torturer, both of whom ‘stand apart from their souls’.

Macdonald weaves for us an endless and painstaking cat’s cradle of connection,both good and bad, meshing us not just with our fellow men, but with every living creature she encounters. The more connections there are, the more bearable our loneliness. So, like the best myths, she turns the world right side up again and gives it back to us, ordered, our place in it secure. At the end, in the wild suburbia of Maine, where she goes to visit friends, a marvellous redemptive balance is struck. Hawking among streets and back gardens, the world of the wild and the world of the human come together gently, in companionable parallel, to co-exist at last, separate but side by side.

Macdonald returns to England. She leaves the hawk with a friend for the six months of moult it must go through to become adult and the book turns back on itself. It started with one loss that was unassimilable, raged against, and it closes with another, and this time the loss is accepted. ‘Everything changes. Everything moves’.

Macdonald leaves her hawk, which doesn’t know it is being left. It doesn’t understand loss so it cannot care. She leaves the world of the wild and comes back to her friend’s house, where there is sympathy for her sadness, where ‘the dogs lie flat on the kitchen floor, tails wagging, and the kettle is whistling, and the house is very warm’.

You can love a hawk, it turns out, but it can’t love you back. It is human to love. And love, even if it hurts, is preferable to the ‘slow spread of the splinter of ice in your eye’, that changing selves with a hawk demands.

People talk about books that change your life. I loved the fact that this book does something much more valuable. It doesn’t change anything. It leaves everything just where it was, only more so; more distinct, more itself. It opens your eyes. And it deepens what we have always known; that we live side by side with each other, as we do with the creatures around us. It is a powerful appeal for clear-sightedness, for connectedness, for equality which has as its premise, irreconcileable, unfathomable difference, not just across cultures but across species.

Equality is how you make things fair, when you are not the same. You treat each other as if you were. Now that is a way to go forward.

H is for Hawk is published by Jonathan Cape on 7 August. Copies are available to pre-order now from the Caught by the River shop at the special price of £12.00

Laura Beatty’s Darkling is published by Chatto and Windus and on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £15.00