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Flight from the tethers of grief

28 November 2014

Pat Ashworth admires the clarity of this writer's perceptions


H is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald
Jonathan Cape £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT292 )

HELEN MACDONALD's prose streams on to the page with absolute clarity in this extraordinary book, written after her father's sudden death, recounting her obsessive retreat into training a goshawk. The hawk, Mabel, is everything that Macdonald wanted to be - "solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life" - and the book is poetry, philosophy, autobiography, scholarship, and nature-writing all bound together in one coherent and beautiful whole.

As a falconer, she was unnerved by goshawks: "spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths", "thirty ounces of death in a feathered jacket", whose hot breath smells of pepper and musk and burned stone, and who fill the house with wildness. But Mabel, she exults, is also like a fallen angel, a griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary, "something bright and distant, like gold falling through water".

This is a searing portrait, too, of the tortured, contradictory T. H. White, whose book, The Goshawk, portrays the metaphysical battle to train his own hawk. Macdonald wholly identifies with White's desire to escape to the wild - a desire "that can rip away all human softness and leave you stranded in a world of savage, courteous despair".

Hers is a ruthlessly honest insight into what it is like to lose, without warning, someone you love. What happens to the mind after bereavement makes no sense until later, she reflects, writing of the "bouts of derealisation, strange episodes where the world becomes unrecognisable", and of the terrible finality of the brute fact: "I would never speak to him again. I would never see him again."

Recognising that and so much else in this book about the journey of grief, I found myself uplifted by her conclusion, that life reaches a point where you realise that it is a thing made of holes, "things that were there, and are there no longer. And you realise, 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."

Yes, I wanted to say. Yes. That's it exactly.

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