Book Review: “H Is For Hawk” (2014) by Helen Macdonald

Original photograph by MJ Springer.

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The first time I tried to write a review for this book, I was going to stick to the facts. I was going to marvel at what a coincidence it was that I’d read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King only a few weeks before this (review here) and comment on my mixed feelings towards its author. I was going to draw comparisons to Moby-Dick and the daemons in His Dark Materials. I’d planned to wax philosophically about how the hawk functions as a mirror in the narrative, reflecting Macdonald’s own emotions back at her, cutting her hands with its razor sharp edges.

The second time I was going to comment on how, even though my own father survived his heart attack earlier this year (which I touched upon in my review of Pyramids), I still felt that I could relate to her story of loss and bewilderment in a way that I would not have been able to before. I would have brought in other memoirs of loss, including personal favourite Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty, and knowing me, there probably would have been a reference to the Book of Job at some point.

But the picture still felt incomplete. It felt dishonest. The truth is that I could not have picked up this book at a better (or worse) time; as I was reading about Macdonald’s mourning process and her struggle to train a goshawk, I was sinking deeper and deeper into a hole of my own, clawing at the walls, unable to find my way out.

Here’s the thing: I have a problem with stress.

Now I can hear you all thinking: “so do I. So does everyone. Life is a bitch and then you die, deal with it.” However, it’s a bit more complicated than that. It is true that everyone experience stress almost daily - we all know the feeling of being overwhelmed by deadlines, suffering losses, and struggling with disappointments. As a rule, these are temporary episodes where stress is actually very beneficial; it gives you a nice boost of adrenaline to make it through and then leaves you be again until the next emergency occurs. This is what we call acute stress; a bright flash and then it’s over.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely. It is all claws and teeth and somehow knows exactly where it can hurt you the most. It also doesn’t go away. It is always lurking somewhere in the corner of your eye, waiting, edging a little closer every time you turn your head, invisible and silent to everyone but you. For years you try to tell yourself that it isn’t there, that it’s not a threat, that you’ve totally got this – but every time you turn a corner it’s right there, growling and digging its nails into the pavement. You’re not fine. You were never fine. What were you thinking?

This type of stress takes over everything and drains the life out of you; it affects how you sleep, how you eat, how you feel about yourself, how you (fail to) interact with your friends and family, and it absolutely wrecks your immune system. Binge eating, panic attacks, muscle pain, overwhelming anxiety over trivial things, and, of course, regularly bursting into tears at the worst possible time in the worst possible place (usually public transport)… It was starting to be come a routine, and an exhausting one at that. But I couldn’t stop. I was trapped in a vicious cycle that kept speeding up, faster and faster, into a never-ending blur of blind panic – until the wheel broke.

It had been two months since I’d last made it through a day without crying. I dreaded having to go to work so much that I didn’t want to fall asleep, because falling asleep meant that morning would come, and morning meant work. The white noise in my head got so bad that I couldn’t even focus enough to do basic everyday tasks. All I could do was sit at my desk, jaw clenched, tears streaming down my cheeks, staring at the wall. I couldn’t do the dishes. I couldn’t go grocery shopping. The static was too loud. After years and years of ever-growing pressure, I had finally cracked.

For so long, I had successfully convinced myself that everyone had these problems, and thus, that I had no right to complain. Life’s a bitch, remember? That’s just the way the world works. Right? But now it was starting to dawn on me that this was not the case – which meant that I could do something about it. The beast could be killed.

I called in sick.

I got help.

And then I picked H Is For Hawk.

I read about how Macdonald sank into a deep depression after her father’s death. In the book, she writes about how she was struggling to hang on to her sanity, looking desperately for anything to cling on to. In her search for answers, any answer, she bought piles and piles of books on grieving and loss:

Was it reassuring to be told that everyone sees ghosts? That everyone stops eating? Or can’t stop eating? Or that grief comes in stages that can be numbered and pinned like beetles in boxes? I read that after denial comes grief. Or anger. Or guilt. I remember worrying about which stage I was at. I wanted to taxonomise the process, order it, make it sensible. But there was no sense, and I didn’t recognise any of these emotions at all.

The more I read of H For Hawk, the more I saw myself in its pages. Macdonald became obsessed with training a wild animal. I drowned myself in novels, only coming up for dinner and the mandatory daily walk my new therapist had ordered. As long as we were distracted, we wouldn’t have to be alone with our thoughts. Then I bought books of my own. I read up on burnouts and mindfulness. My mother, ever the scientist, sent me articles about brain chemistry. We, too, tried to fight the foe with cold hard logic. If you can understand it, you can fight it – that is why names are such a powerful weapon in fairy tales; knowledge is power – but analysing from a safe distance will only get you so far. Beasts have to be fought head on. You can’t keep running forever.

In the end, Macdonald, too, got help, and the fog in her head cleared. I’ve started writing again. There is still a long way to go, and it won’t be easy, but this time I know that I will be okay. I just need to figure out what “okay” is and how to get there.

And maybe go for more nature walks.

 

Note: I thought very long and hard about posting such a personal story, but with 15,000 followers on Tumblr as of this week, I figured that there have to at least a couple of readers out there who may be going through something similar and need to know that they’re not alone or “crazy.” Mental health is important, kids. Keeping your worries and fears to yourself (or denying their very existence, like I did) may seem like a very tempting coping mechanism, but it is not a solution. Ask for help.


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4 thoughts on “Book Review: “H Is For Hawk” (2014) by Helen Macdonald

  • December 3, 2015 at 11:25 am
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    I’m glad you posted it. Thankyou

    Reply
  • December 28, 2015 at 7:31 pm
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    Somehow I missed this review when you posted it, but I’m glad I found my way to it. This book meant everything to me this year along with Everything I Never Told You. Thanks for sharing such a personal story. Hearing about other people seeking support for mental health is such an important thing.

    Reply
    • December 29, 2015 at 1:02 pm
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      (Putting “Everything I Never Told You” on my list!)

      This was such a difficult review to write, but a necessary one, I think. I’m glad to hear that this book meant so much to other people as well – it really is a gem!

      Reply

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