Last night I finished reading H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald’s extraordinary and much-fêted memoir about how she worked through her grief at her father’s death by training a goshawk.
I loved the book for the luminosity of the writing, the intensity of its sense of place, the shimmering descriptions of landscape and weather, for the way she evokes the fierce purity of the wild creature she was attempting to bend to her will, and for the rawness and honesty with which she describes her own emotions, bordering at times on a kind of madness.
For all that, there were two things about the book that unsettled me. About halfway through I found myself beginning to become impatient with her grief. She seemed stuck, and the travails of training the hawk simply accentuated her misery, a misery whose depth I felt increasingly at odds with. How could a 40-year-old Cambridge academic and falconer be so severely unseated by the death of a parent?
She says little in the book about her father, except that he was a journalist photographer and that his death was unexpected and presumably premature. We are left to intuit that her bond with him was exceptionally strong; strong enough to plunge her into severe depression at his loss.
But the more I thought about it, the more I came to think: well, why wouldn’t she be devastated if she was that close to him? Grief is an unfathomable thing. And the more I thought about that, the more I realised that my impatience perhaps said more about me than her: I envied her the depth of that connection.
This is neither to say that I would have wished to go mad at my father’s death nor that my relationship with him was unloving. There was always an unspoken affection there, but only towards the end of his life did either of us really start to find a voice for it, and no sooner had we than he suffered a severe stroke. The sense of loss awakened in me by the book was for the relationship that he and I might have had.
H is for Hawk furnished me, if that is the right word, with another loss also. In my late teens or early twenties I read The Once and Future King, TH White’s magnificent telling of the Arthurian story. I loved it immediately, especially the opening book, The Sword in the Stone, which tells of how the wizard Merlyn educates his protégé, the Wart, as White names the young Arthur, by magically changing him into a series of birds and animals.
I knew that White had been a schoolmaster at Stowe public school. I had imagined him as the Merlyn he describes in the book – wise, eccentric, mischievous, kindly but exacting. But as Helen Macdonald struggles to train her hawk and come to terms with her grief, she tells the parallel story of White’s own disastrous attempt to train a goshawk, which he described in his book The Goshawk, and in doing so she reveals him as something quite else.
White does everything wrong to the goshawk that he possibly could, and his agonies over his failure with the bird become a metaphor for his personal agony as a repressed gay man whose appalling childhood expressed itself in sadistic paedophile fantasies. Far from being the benign figure of his literary creation, TH White was a profoundly damaged and tormented soul.
And so a long-standing member of my personal literary pantheon turns out to have had feet of clay. Through H is for Hawk I lose an idealised hero. But I gain a real, suffering person who invested what he wrote with all his dreams, all his unattainable aspirations of becoming a better human being than he felt himself to be.
I have mixed feelings about that, if I’m honest. But perhaps that is the work of great writing, both Helen Macdonald’s and TH White’s: to leave one with mixed feelings as a true reflection of how the world is.