H is for hawk | Helen Macdonald

H is for Hmmm. I really enjoyed this at the start, became increasingly irked by it, and was downright annoyed by the end. There are three distinct narratives: the sudden death of the author’s father and her subsequent stages of grief; her acquisition of a young female goshawk and the story of the bird’s training and development, and a lot of thoughts about T H White, best known as the author of The sword in the stone etc, but who also wrote a memoir about training a goshawk.

Helen Macdonald’s nature writing is often amazing. Really amazing. It’s full of hyper-real sensory detail as the author becomes almost as alert to every movement and sound and sight as the hawk, and conjures the landscape through this newly keen perception wonderfully. We start to feel what ‘hawk-eyed’ really means: a whole new spectrum of awareness. And her writing is brilliantly honed to convey this. She also has to develop a whole new type of attention to read the bird; its posture, gaze, movements are the language she has to learn. Her growing identification with the bird, seeing and thinking as the bird does, is an engrossing journey.

At the same time she’s in the throes of profound mourning and falling apart after her father’s sudden death. This is really poignant stuff and very moving. She conveys her grief simply and bluntly and it’s all the more effective for that; crumbling when unexpected little things remind her of him, and over time finding that she understands him more as her relationship with the bird develops. So there are these two very vivid psychological trajectories, the terrible loss and the becoming-more-hawk, and that would be enough, really.

But no, there’s T H White. And there is far too much of him, frankly. His writing, his terrible childhood, his psychology, his sexual tastes, his interior design preferences, and his profound and tragic unsuitability for caring for a wild animal, to the point of intrusive overload. I have no problem with parallel lives or multiple time lines or intertextuality in memoir – Sebald does it a lot, for instance, and it’s magical, all blending together perfectly. But here it introduces an overly scholarly note that jars with the intensely personal narratives. It feels like the author shoe-horned in a dissertation: the curse of academia I suppose.

An even greater objection: ethics. As a vegan animal rights snowflake, opposed to bloodsports and the keeping of wild animals in captivity, I had Questions. How is it possible to claim to revere the wild beauty and ferocity of the bird, but force it to bend it to your will? Imprison it in such an dependant and unnatural life? Hunt for fun? Genuine question – in the twenty-first century, how can any of this be justified? Her bird is at times terrified, angry, overfed, underfed, abandoned. The author blunders around the countryside with a hungry winged killing machine, trespassing, stumbling into peoples gardens, accidentally ripping apart captive birds, massacring wildlife. But despite her deeply scholarly mindset she blithely skims over all this ethical awkwardness. Not good enough.

And the ending feels so rushed and careless. The author goes to the US on holiday, her friends look after the bird, she has a lovely time because everyone loves hunting there, comes back, puts the bird in an aviary over winter, drives off, the end. PS She died a few years later. The feeling is the novelty has worn off, the honeymoon is over, or perhaps the author had a deadline looming and had to suddenly wrap the book up. Who knows. But the bird is no longer the extraordinary centre of her world, her death just a post script, and it strikes a rather heartless note. For a book about bereavement, how odd to not even discuss that loss.