There’s something unexpected about Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk. From the synopsis I was first given I was somewhat indifferent to the prospect of reading through a memoir chronicling a profound sentimentality for nature – or at least, as my initial impression implied. However, curiosity happened to get the better of me and I found myself soon transformed by the incredible honesty of prose MacDonald conveys from the nib of her pen (or perhaps, ‘clatter of keyboard’ would be more fitting for a writer of our century).
So, when I found out MacDonald would be heading to Norwich for the Spring Literary Festival I pounced upon the opportunity to attend, and I wasn’t disappointed. MacDonald carries with her a strong presence: confident, compelling and unabashedly honest. When the conversation quickly turned to the topic of grief (as is natural when the book’s most prominent discussion is on dealing with a significant personal loss), MacDonald poured forth with explanation: “I soon realised how unflinching I had to be about how grief works – not only mentally, but physically too. If I was going to write this book, I had to give all of myself to it.” It seemed to me that the process of writing was for MacDonald a significant therapy, it allowed the words to then flow vocally, through this incredible testament to language which her book provides. There was a lightness in her tone which suggested the great unleashing of a heavy burden.
The most pertinent issue of MacDonald’s book is the difficulty of superimposing human expectations onto a creature of the wild. Mabel, the gracious but imposing Goshawk MacDonald takes on the task of training, is a creature of ‘extraordinary intensity’. It’s the kind of intensity MacDonald required, something fierce and savage. She explained how Mabel was everything she wanted to be; she had lost sight of herself and instead saw the Hawk as an escape from her own personal suffering. The irony is that the Hawk was just as terrified as MacDonald was at this time: ‘I lost sight of who I was just as I lost sight of who my Hawk was. It was that old chestnut of running to the wild to heal’.
For MacDonald, the realisation came when she stopped having human expectations of Mabel: ‘The realisation that she’s not human was great for me. I could finally glory in difference, in the non-human world.’ This is when the healing really began, as is captured perfectly in the book. However, there is no doubt that MacDonald’s capacity for language does not stop with the written word; I could listen to her speak for hours.