I DECIDED not to buy this book when it first came out. I was aware of it, of course. That striking cover - with its glowering goshawk and its forbidding, yellow eyes - seemed to follow me everywhere.
From the title, I assumed it was going to be another of those titles like Cod, or Salt, that walk you through its subject, feeding you with fact and anecdote. I've started too many books like that and never reached the end, so when I saw H is for Hawk in the bookshop, I walked by on the other side.
But I'm an animal lover, and have recently moved to the country, to a place surrounded by birds - some of which I'm just beginning to recognise. And people started telling me I was missing out. "You'll love it," they told me. "It's not what you think."
I folded; and I'm glad I did. H is for Hawk is as much about its author as it is about Mabel, the young goshawk she buys for £800 cash on a Scottish quayside, in order to train it. Macdonald, a Cambridge historian, has been obsessed by birds of prey since a small child; she has trained falcons but wants, more than anything, to train a goshawk - which, according to the literature, are difficult, dangerous, flighty.
The intensely personal story of the developing relationship between the two is at the same time a compelling narrative about what it is we look for when we try to get close to animals, to other humans, and to the wild. Author and goshawk come together in the wake of the death of Macdonald's father, a press photographer and birder, who had taught her the profound patience ornithology demands. "Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace," she says, "it comes, but not often, and you don't get to say when or how."
Her father's death has left her more grief-stricken and lost than she could ever have imagined; as a result, she unconsciously brings huge weight to bear on the relationship with Mabel. It is as if she transfers her identity to this creature, hoping to be saved from herself.
Macdonald's confusion, and her dependence on being able to bond with the bird, make for some extraordinary writing. As Mabel learns to take to the wing and hunt, Macdonald almost becomes the bird herself; as readers, we also take to the sky, and go in for the kill. Her detailed and knowledgeable descriptions of the hawk, of falconry, and the terrain are breathtaking. Her enthusiasm, her obsession, pulls you along in its wake.
"The hawk left the fist with the recoil of a .303 rifle. I stepped out to watch. Saw a chain of events so fast they snapped into a comic strip . . . Frame one: goshawk spluttering from the fist in bars and pinions and talons. Frame two: goshawk low to the ground, grass streaking along under her. Chocolate wings, beat-ing strongly, hump-backed. Frame three: rabbits running. Frame four: the pheasant too, crouching and running into the wood's safe margin."
Macdonald also takes us into a dark spiral of grief, and a kind of madness as she loses hold on reality, and all but dismantles herself in reclusion - with her and the goshawk contra mundum.
IN A fascinating counterpoint to her own story, Macdonald examines the experiences of T. H. White, the author of The Sword in the Stone. White was also unhappy, ill at ease with his closet homosexuality and sado-masochism. "My reasons weren't White's," Macdonald writes, "but I was running just the same."
As an academic might, she tries to analyse her grief: "I wanted to taxonomise the process, order it, make it sensible." But she finds that there is no formula, concluding that "It happens to everyone, but you feel it alone."
Her despair proves as wild and difficult to tame as her bird. "I'd turned myself into a hawk," she writes. "I was nervous, highly-strung, paranoid, prone to fits of terror and rage; I ate greedily or didn't eat at all; fled from society, hid from everything."
I won't tell you exactly how she resolves this. I want you to read the book. Suffice to say that she realises that flight is not the answer. "I'd thought that to heal a great hurt, I should flee to the wild," she says, but she recognises that "the wild is not a panacea for the human soul."
This remarkable book, written in striking prose, is quite a ride. One minute you're soaring among the clouds, the next plummeting into thorn and nettle. At times, I wanted to shake some sense into the author; but in the end I knew that I needed to give her the same time and patience that she gives to her wild-eyed goshawk.
Malcolm Doney is a freelance writer, and former Features Editor of the Church Times.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, is published by Vintage at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); ISBN 978-0-09957-545-0.
H IS FOR HAWK - SOME QUESTIONS
"Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don't get to say when or how." Do you agree?
Has H is for Hawk made you more attentive in the ways in which you perceive landscape?
"He [T. H. White] had to displace his desires onto the landscape, that great, blank green field that cannot love you back, but cannot hurt you either." To what extent is nature a salve in this book?
"Wild things are made from human histories." Has H is for Hawk made you reconsider how humans are formed by their past?
Would you agree that this is a book as much about haunting as hunting?
Both Helen Macdonald and T. H. White have a complex relationship with the falconers in whose footsteps they tread: what does H is for Hawk have to say about tradition?
What effect do you think the story of T. H. White has on the book as a whole?
Did you find the book's portrayal of grief helpful?
What does the book have to say about self-control, and its limits?
How has this book changed your thinking about wildness and its place in our lives?
To what extent is this a book about brokenness?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 June, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Ban This Filth! Mary Whitehouse and the battle to keep Britain innocent by Ben Thompson, published by Faber at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-0-57128-1-510.
In 1964, Mary Whitehouse, senior mistress at a Shropshire secondary school, launched a campaign against "the propaganda of disbelief, doubt and dirt" being poured into people's homes through the media of radio and television. For 40 years, she lobbied the programme-makers, pop stars, and politicians whom she felt were dragging British culture into "a sewer of blasphemy and obscenity"; the National Viewers' & Listeners' Association (which she founded) survives today in Mediawatch-uk. Mocked in her lifetime, this material from her remarkable archive casts a startling new light on her legacy and its relevance today.
Ben Thompson is a cultural critic who contributes to the FT, Mojo, and The Sunday Telegraph. He has published a "landmark history of modern British comedy" as well as two critically acclaimed collections of rock journalism; and has co-written memoirs with Vic Reeves, Phil Daniels, and Dizzee Rascal, to name but three.
Books for the next two months:
July: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
August: Acts and Omissions by Catherine Fox