Grief is unquantifiable. It can’t be measured or compared. It isn’t one thing or another. It doesn’t affect everybody the same. Grief can bring people together or rip them apart. I’ve been brought closer to someone through loss and had that same person push me away. It happens, it hurts. It’s something we all feel at some point, and yet we don’t really, because grief is personal and raw. There aren’t a set list of symptoms. There’s no fixed timeline or set route through.
Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is a testimony to all of this and more. After the sudden death of her father, a press photographer, Macdonald was inconsolable. They shared a strong relationship and his unexpected absence left a painful space in her life. That loss is evident in the pages, overwhelmingly so, but there is also a deep love there and an appreciation for a man who loved what he did, capturing photographs with curiosity and enthusiasm. In the time after his death, Macdonald finds solace in the bright eyes and fierce talons of a goshawk, a bird renowned for its difficulty to tame.
Taming a goshawk requires formidable patience, discipline and endurance. It’s a process that requires nothing less than full commitment and Macdonald gives it everything. As Mabel gradually becomes tamer, Macdonald finds herself becoming wilder, and the bond they share is far more complex than falconer and bird. The line between them is something like love or trust or faith- that line is tested more than once when Mabel flies free and perches on a high branch rather than an outstretched fist.
The hunting scenes are not something I can easily revel in, but there is something satisfying in seeing an animal do what it is born to do. The moments I enjoyed the most were those that showed the quiet harmony between Mabel and Macdonald. Those afternoons sat watching TV, or playing catch with scrunched up paper balls and peekaboo with paper telescopes.
Despite the long solitary walks, falconry provides Macdonald with a path back to the friends and family she has avoided and Mabel offers others a chance to express their own sadness. At the end of the book Macdonald and Mabel part ways for the summer. Mabel will malt and grow in a brand new set of feathers, but there is a sense that Macdonald has metamorphosised too.
H is for Hawk is a heart-warming tribute to a man fascinated by the sky and the things that fly there.