Friday, 30 December 2016

Notable Book of the Year 2016 - H is for Hawk

"Prisonface is terrified of life; he is a chameleon, a mirror, existing only through his reflection in the eyes of others."

H is for Hawk is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an obscure book. If you wind the clock back a year and peruse through any best books list from 2015, you'd find its name there, typically at the top.

The first time I attempted to read the book was in early February. I failed. On that balmy day, with the sun dazzling through the oily leaves of the tree in front of dorm 10, I propped the book open on my lap and spent the next ten minutes absorbing its premise. And even in the Ahmedabad sun - the unrelenting, unremitting Ahmedabad sun - I experienced a chill down my spine. I couldn't read it. Another nine months went by till the day I eventually sat down on a blustery morning in New York to read through it, an intensely rewarding experience which prompted me to write this review.

To explain why I couldn't find the courage to proceed in my first attempt, you must understand what the book is all about.

At the core of H is for Hawk is the question of how people make sense of their lives by putting their selves in a symbol that they hope represents everything they were meant to do (or be) in life. The symbol can be anything but it stands untarnished by compromise; unencumbered by bonds of love or pangs of suffering.

H is for Hawk is an autobiographical account of Helen Macdonald as she fights through the grief of losing her father. This is the essence of the story - a gut wrenching journey where the author spins hopelessly away into the void; struggles to stay afloat; closing down the world around her; a magnificent and ancient creature - a goshawk - her only company and Patronus.

To merely say the above, though, is to completely miss the point. H is for Hawk transcends genres - as a story about a young girl who only always desired to fly with majestic birds of prey; as a gorgeous handbook on falcons and the history of falconry; as a commentary on the quintessential English countryside; as a disturbing and piercing biography of a famous writer of the previous century.

By the way, a goshawk looks like this:

Reading H is for Hawk can be difficult. Helen's personal sorrow drips out of every page. It imbues a melancholic strain that lingers, even when you've set the book aside to get back to your own existence. At times, this affects you. There was many a time when I flipped through the pages to the back cover, to find myself staring at Helen's face and her brooding eyes. Eyes that seem heavy with sadness and a weight that looks almost impossible to bear.

The reader will persist. The prose is beautiful and Helen mixes up a story of depression and misery with the magical description of her Goshawk, Mabel. In one of the lighter moments in the book, she talks how giving a "tough" name for a hawk is a sure recipe for disaster.
"There's a superstition among falconers that a hawk's ability is inversely proportional to the ferocity of its name. Call a hawk Tiddles and it will be a formidable hunter; call it Spitfire or Slayer and it will probably refuse to fly at all."
Helen is a practicing falconer herself - becoming one was a childhood passion of hers. Helen teaches you to love what she loves and it all comes so naturally that you hardly notice it, and yet when you close the book you'll never see a bird of prey the same way again. H is for Hawk also has rich and intimate descriptions of the English countryside. Of course, the size of the demographic who enjoys this is understandably fledgling but I put it out there, just in case.

Darkness and despair doesn't merely run through Helen's own story. An important and intriguing element of the author's narration is the parallel account of T H White (author of the famous The Sword in the Stone series). White's life acts as a compelling counterfoil throughout the book, as he narrates a tortured existence and how he desperately attempted to tame his own goshawk, Gos. White, former headmaster of a school, a misfit since childhood carrying many ghosts of his past tries to find refuge in the training of his hawk. The book moves back and forth between these two solitary and anguished narrators as Helen tries to make sense of her own sorrow. It's a moving and powerful literary device.

Customarily, a book review must include perceived shortcomings. Allow me to end with one. Autobiographies by their nature can be one-dimensional and therefore it's a mark of how well Helen has finessed her story that you end up demanding (unfairly) more details about the other characters in her life, who have a fleeting presence, being part participants exiting the stage almost as soon as they enter it. I struggle to find more flaws in this exquisite book.

H is for Hawk is good literature that's accessible to all kinds of readers. It makes you realize, as all good books do, that our smallest and most private tribulations have been expressed by the great artists of language.
"You are exercising what the poet Keats called your chameleon quality, the ability to 'tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment.'"
The book is destined to be a modern classic, a story that leaves you with strength and hope, yes, but also little tidbits of enlightenment. For instance, Helen describes a tragedy as:
"...that it is the story of a figure who, through some moral flaw or personal failing, falls through force of circumstance to his doom."
H is for Hawk is a must read in every sense.

(This is the first in a series of 5 posts on the best books I read through the year. The first one (as you can see) is an Autobiographical work. The next in this series include non-fiction, fiction and comic books/graphic novels! Follow me at

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