283 p & notes, 2014
I’m not quite sure how Helen Macdonald managed to interweave a detailed and rather technical book about training a goshawk with a clear-eyed description of a profound grief that almost tipped into madness. But manage it she does, educating millions of readers about the minutiae of falconry along the way, and I found myself missing the narrator and her storytelling when I finally finished the book.
Helen Macdonald is a historian who was in the third year of a fellowship at Cambridge University and nudging 40 years of age when her father, a noted photojournalist, died. She was plunged into a deep, and (I think) unhealthy and somewhat warped grief, not unlike that of Caroline Jones whose book I reviewed rather harshly here. She had a mother and brother of whose own grief she is completely oblivious, but through the death of her father she was brought completely undone by her own loss of a mentor and fellow-bird enthusiast.
One of her favourite books as a child was T. H. White’s The Goshawk, which tells of White’s unsuccessful attempts as an ‘austringer’ with his own goshawk, Gos. Trying to reconnect with her father and the security of the father-young daughter relationship, Macdonald re-reads White’s book. However, by now she is conscious as she never was as a child, of White’s biography written by Sylvia Ashton Warner which reveals White (the author of The Once and Future King which was later adapted into the movie Camelot) to be a deeply unhappy homosexual teacher who struggled with his attraction to sadomasochism and flagellation. White’s harsh and driven training of his goshawk, using medieval training methods, seems to be another manifestation of cruelty and fetishism. For Macdonald, who has procured her own goshawk, re-reading White provides a salient less in how not to train.
It is these two narratives of bird-training, then, that run through the book: her own training of Mabel the goshawk, and White’s unsuccessful training of Gos in the 1930s. There’s lots of arcane vocabulary that by the end of the book you identify immediately, like ‘yarak’ (being in heightened hunting mode), ‘bating’ (rising up with wings flapping) and ‘mute’ (a more genteel word for bird-shit).
Closed in on herself and her own grief, there are only fleeting mentions of the outside world: she likens the goshawk’s hood to those worn at Abu Ghraib, or listlessly notices the crowds outside the Northern Rock bank during the 2007 financial meltdown.
Her identification with Mabel runs at a deeply existential level
I’d flown scores of hawks, and every step of their training was familiar to me. But while the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk. (p 84)
The narrative pull of this book is watching Macdonald gradually find her way out of grief. It’s a beautifully written book, sharply descriptive of Mabel the goshawk, clinical in the author’s own observation of herself and her grief, and poetic in its descriptions of landscape. No wonder it won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2014.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: A friend who lent it to me months ago and probably thinks I’ve lost it.