I've now finished this powerful book. It reads like acid dropped onto carbonate - it fizzes and explodes with emotion and pain. Yet there are sliver threads shining in this dark material as she describes her intense love for Mabel (her goshawk), her dad and the landscapes she hawks through.
I'm not sure I enjoyed it as much as got wrapped up in it. But as I said in a previous blog - pain and blood drip from the pages, so it not an easy read. I left her sinking into manic depression after the death of her father and taking on a goshawk to train as a kind of medicine. This she interweaves with the sad and raw story of T E White who wrote The Goshawk, a classic account of training a goshawk which is brutal. A desperate taming of a bird through misplaced guilt at his sadistic tendencies (a product of a cruel childhood) and homosexual desire.
As Helen withdraws from normal life to concentrate on training the hawk, she becomes mentally ill. She tries to become a goshawk, wild and free, away from the memories of houses and society. She lives on her own in a bird-filled world where all that mattered were the mood and weight of the hawk and the times when they could fly and kill. She became fascinated in the act of death and the moment in time when life turned into food. She loses her ability to be "normal" in society and her paranoia increases.
"Sometimes when light dawns it simply illuminates how dismal circumstances have become. Every morning I wake at five and have thirty seconds lead-time before despair crashes in...I know that I'm not trusting anyone, or anything any more. And that it is hard to live for long periods without trusting anyone or anything. It's like living without sleep. Eventually it will kill you."
But through this increasing depression she sees the world with heightened senses, as though the rawness of her wounds increases the sensitivity to landscapes, atmospheres and feelings. Some of her descriptions of places are truly wonderful. You feel you are there with her walking through a frosty, translucent meadow where realities shift with the shadows cast by a weak sun. Or you can hear the quarrelsome rooks in the black skeletons of winter trees. You can see Mabel flash through thin air, feel the blood of a rabbit held alive in the clutches of lethal talons. Her observations of this wild world are dream like - as are the images she paints so skilfully. A cinereal stratus - a cloud that has the ashen face of death.
Perhaps there is too much of the death and despair at times, one too many near misses when Mabel almost flies away and she panics, as though the ghost of her father is disappearing too. Perhaps also too many horrible references to nasties such as Nazism and the physical effects of myxomatosis. These, combined with her own cries from the heart leave the reader with a sense of contorted darkness.
But as she lightens, as either the anti depressants, or time, or both, take effect the book seems to lift out of the hands. You get a feeling rather like taking off a heavy rucksack after a day's walk, you are almost weightless with relief. And so it is when she sees beauty again, as in her walk onto chalk downland.
"I take a deep breath and exhale, full of the ballooning light-headedness of standing on chalk. Chalk landscapes do this to me; bring an exhilarating, on tiptoe sense that some deep revelation is at hand."
Anyone who has walked through flowery downs will know what she means. This is where history, both natural and manmade, merge in a heady expanse of loveliness. Where megaliths place their feet in the white earth but their heads look out over millennia. And this seems to be part of the healing journey where she comes to know that she cannot be a hawk, cannot run to wildness to get away from pain, cannot escape the hard reality that her father is dead and gone.
At the end of the book she visits the old cottage that used to belong to White when he had his goshawk. Despite seeing the owner gardening she resisted the urge to talk to him.
"White is gone. The hawk has flown. Respect the living, honour the dead. Leave them be...And then I turned and walked away. I left the man who was not a ghost, and I walked south. Over the bright horizon the sky swam like water."
And so it ends.
Ultimately this is not just about hawks and grief, it is about a love that is deeply and tremulously held for her father and for natural world in every hue. It is about mental illness and the awfulness of depression that very nearly destroyed this talented woman. Helen comes across as both fragile and strong, obsessive and loyal. Someone who is intriguing but I imagine quite hard to get close to.
I'm not sure I understand falconry any better, despite all the explanations and pleadings. I don't have the desire to tame the wild, but if you do then this book will have an extra dimension.
Would I recommend it? Oh certainly I would. But with caution if you are carrying painful grief of your own. Is it a masterpiece? Yes I think it is. And I salute Helen for her honesty. Even if I had a fraction of her talent I'm not sure I could put myself out there like this. Lay my soul on a marble slab for dissection. It takes courage to tell the world about your heart in such vivid prose. Well done Helen, you are inspirational. You stand alongside White as a writer of a goshawk classic - but I'm not sure you would feel totally comfortable with that.