A hawk stares out from the cover of this book: it is hard to turn away from the fierce intensity of its gaze. And intense, too, is how I would describe this book, which is about grief, trauma and the relationship between humans and goshawks.
When Helen McDonald’s father dies, she is devastated. She tries to persuade herself that she is fine, that she is dealing with her grief. But she isn’t, she is drifting into a kind of madness, a profound displacement. “Time didn’t run forwards any more. It was a solid thing you could press against…that flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards so the new things I encountered, then, seemed souvenirs from the distant past.”
To try and deal with grief, she decides to buy and train a goshawk. Goshawks are “bulkier, bloodier, scarier” than other hawks. They are creatures of deep woodlands and hard to see: “a sense of something moving just beyond vision”. McDonald is a falconer and has been obsessed by falconry and hawks since she was a little girl, learning the terminology (which she uses in the book) and reading anything she can find on the subject.
McDonald calls her goshawk Mabel (the ferocity of hawks is supposed to be in inverse proportion to their names: call a hawk Spitfire and it will probably refuse to fly). She brings Mabel home, turns her phone off and devotes herself to the bird.
The relationship between McDonald and Mabel starts with the slow, patient work to try and convince Mabel that she can trust a human. Mabel stays indoors until McDonald feels she is ready to go out. The first time in the park is traumatic for both of them, especially for McDonald, not only because she has been keeping away from people, but also because she is beginning to see the world through the eyes of the hawk. And this is how she deals with grief—by losing herself in another creature so completely that, for a while, she almost becomes it. The hawk is vital to her emotional healing.
The spirits of two men also haunt this memoir: one is McDonald’s father, a photographer who had understood her obsession with birds, and to whom she was very close. But the story of the other man, T.H. White, who also trained a goshawk and wrote about it, forms a large part of this book. White, in attempting to train his hawk, Gos, had done everything a falconer should not do. He saw falconry as a “metaphysical battle, like Moby Dick” rather than as a slow process of building trust. He had had a traumatic childhood with a violent alcoholic for a father and a mother who was emotionally cold and distant. The only way White could get by was to “mirror what was going on around him”. This meant a life of perpetual disguise: he was a homosexual when it was illegal so he flirted with women, and he was afraid of everything so he did everything he was afraid of. The only time he could really be himself was in his cottage in the woods with his goshawk, who—for him—represented freedom. But by training the hawk, he was also unconsciously trying to work through his childhood traumas, something he realized only towards the end of his relationship with Gos.
McDonald’s writing is a pleasure to read, not just for its language but for her unflinching description of deep grief and the way she weaves together the different threads running through the book. But the memoir is dominated by the bird—Mabel—that stares out from the cover. McDonald’s description of her first encounter with Mabel is lyrical: “The man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. … She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.”
When McDonald manages to come to terms with her grief, it is Mabel who helps get her there, and who takes her on a journey through her pain until she can reconnect with herself and the world. And this is not in any anthromorphic sense, but by the simple fact of being a hawk. I know that I will carry the image of this fierce, indomitable bird with me for a long time.