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The Itch of Writing Bookself 3: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

The third in a new series of mini-reviews that focus on what a book I've enjoyed has to offer a writer. Click here for the full (or rather, rapidly filling) Itch of Writing Bookshelf, and if you're looking for books to help with your writing directly, then click through to Books for Writers.

H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald was a young academic when her photojournalist father suddenly died. She had flown and worked with birds of prey as a hobby, but now she decided to buy and train a young goshawk: the biggest as well as the most notoriously difficult and unrewarding of the traditional hawking birds.  T H White's memoir of his disastrous failure to do the same, Goshawk, is a minor classic but also, as Macdonald explores, a lesson in how not to do it, both practically and psychologically. So the book is woven of three strands: the training of Mabel, the first year or so of Macdonald's grief for her father with its attendant pain, amnesiac moments, memories and sudden insights, and an exploration of White's experience.

Why I enjoyed it

Macdonald had me at Hawk, for reasons that anyone who's read A Secret Alchemy will understand (for my take on the art, click here). But even without that, this book is a remarkable piece of life writing, creative non-fiction, nature and wildlife writing, memoir, call it what you will. The evocation of the natural world is exquisite, lyrical in the true sense of making the strange familiar and the familiar strange, and there's joy and comedy too. But it goes deeper than that. Hawks are not dogs with bigger talons (though they certainly have them), or even cats: they have no allegiances, no loves or hates, no social wiring, only the drive to survive and prosper, and the intelligence to grasp that co-operating with a human may be the best way to do that. So, in manning and training a hawk, our own animal need to connect emotionally with other animals is laid naked before us, in being denied. It is a kind of grief, but one which eventually brings Macdonald a self-knowledge worth having, so that the building of the relationship between Macdonald and Mabel echoes and refracts the form and quality of Macdonald's larger processes of grief for her father. (28th July 2015: click here for a lovely interview in Guernica Magazine with Macdonald about writing the book, and what happened afterwards)

Three reasons for a writer to read it:

1) The prose is exquisite, not just in the writing about nature but in the evocation of both grief and joy, which are beautifully disciplined: it's never over-written, nor raw in the sense of crude. The shattering effect of the sudden death of a parent much too soon is in a strange, subtle way made manageable by being embodied in the story of Mabel. Not that narrative drive is ever sacrificed to prose. It doesn't have to be: the story of this ferocious, dinosaur-descended piece of wild nature learning to operate in the natural world is the narrative drive.

2) That narrative tension: Macdonald keeps us, the readers, as uncertain as she must have been about what will happen next, what might go right, what seems about to go wrong. She is also extremely disciplined about what creeps in from the rest of her life, which is not a lot: this is in no sense an autobiography giving a clear account for the record. It is, if you like, not a file of documentary photographs so much as a brilliantly structured expressionist painting, so alive within the limits of this particular frame that you feel little curiosity about what's beyond it.

3) Good life writing always has things to teach fictioneers, as well as creative non-fictioneers: the sense of voice, of real lives, and the possibilities of form. Many novels are formed as memoirs, and the crucial question I've suggested you ask your novel - where is the narrator standing, relative to the events that are being narrated? - is often best understood if you think of a real life-writer in relation to the real life they're writing. The specifics of Macdonald's handling of past and present, her decisions about what to let in and what to leave out of the wider context, the pace and shape of how she plaits the three threads together, are all things which fiction writers can benefit from considering. The structure, too, is a masterclass in how to draw in other threads without ever slackening the main one. And then there's the prose.