Sunday, 24 January 2016

G is for Grieving

In 2015 a lot of people were talking about Helen Macdonald's award winning book, H is for Hawk (2014). Indeed it appeared on many 'best of' lists for the year and has been hailed by many for its remarkable combination of memoir, natural history, biography and self-help. It was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction and the Costa Book of the Year award.

Helen was a research fellow at Cambridge University when her photographer father died suddenly. Consumed with grief, Helen went online, ordered a goshawk she named Mabel, and spent the next year immersed in training this bird of prey.

While the purchase may seem like a whim, Helen was well acquainted with falconry. As a child she was obsessed with birds of prey and read all sorts of books about hawks and falcons. She has trained birds before, but a goshawk is notoriously difficult to train.

As Helen learns about Mabel, the reader does too. Mabel and Helen discover together, through trial and error, how to fly, feed and hunt. Mabel helps Helen to resolve her grief and find happiness.

Macdonald's journey with Mabel is paralleled by TH White's experience with his hawk, Gos. English author White, best known for his King Arthur novel The Sword in the Stone (1938), was a deeply unhappy, lonely man, who described his attempts to train his hawk in The Goshawk (1951).  While White is cruel with his hawk - overfeeding, neglecting, smothering - Macdonald understands the nature of hawks and how they need to be treated.

I have mixed feelings about this book. Macdonald's writing is extraordinary - she is so descriptive that the reader is immersed in the feathers. You feel her pain as she describes her grief, loneliness and disappointment as well as her joy as she celebrates small successes while training Mabel. I am not a 'bird person' but I found myself enjoying the new terminology - bating, creance, jesses, tiring, yarak - and was keen to hear more about these remarkable creatures.

For me, the story was uneven, at times engrossing and then suddenly boring. I felt it lagged in the middle, spending too much time on the unlikable White, and not enough time on Helen and Mabel. The good far outweighed the bad and ultimately I would recommend H is for Hawk, especially for lovers of natural history and birds.