Hawks, Cats, & Grief

Is there anything more frustrating than losing a draft? I had just finished a long post, inserted images and was set to hit “Publish” when some kind of demon overtook my computer and all seems to be lost. Oh the frustration! So here I go again…

H is for HawkI snagged the last copy of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald from a local bookstore and began reading it immediately and had a hard time putting it down. Part memoir, part liteary analysis, part history, Macdonald writes about a period of intense grief after her father dies unexpectedly. During this period and as a way to process her emotions, she decides to train and fly a female goshawk that she names Mabel.

Though training a hawk as a remedy for grief sounds extremely random and possibly odd, Macdonald has a long history with falconry. She was fascinated with the subject as a child and read everything and anything she could find written on it. She trained and flew many birds, mostly merlins and falcons, prior to her purchase of the young Mabel. But she had never trained a goshawk, widely viewed by falconers and the wildest and most bloodthirsty of killers.

Macdonald’s grief is so very deep that at times she lost me with the nuances in her reflections. The training of her hawk takes her far down the rabbit hole of emotions and, at times, she feels so at one with the hawk that she can viscerally feel its power and desire to kill. As I suspected her verging onto a kind of madness, she recognizes the depth to her own pain and depression and seeks help. Eventually, she recovers, reconnects with the human world, and is able to fly Mabel as a beautiful nearly wild thing separate from herself.

Macdonald, a Cambridge professor and historian, shares a lot of fascinating information about falconry and its history, of which she is clearly an expert. She offsets and compares her own experiences with that of the writer T. H. White, author of the classic memoir The Goshawk, and novel The Sword in the Stone. White never intended to publish The Goshawk as it is a memoir of a dark period in his life when he undertook a disastrous training of a male goshawk (he had no idea what he was doing), but eventually the book was published and is now considered a classic. First, however, he published The Sword in the Stone in which he used many of his experiences learning about falconry. Macdonald read both of these and discusses them, and White’s character, as she goes through the process of her own goshawk’s training. The Sword in the Stone

I get more and more interested in birds, especially the noble raptors, as I age, so that is what drew me to the book. I got more than I bargained for, learning so much about English history, falconry, T. H. White, and the immensely intelligent and expressive Macdonald. I absolutely loved this book, and most oddly, the day I bought it, an entirely random purchase for my growing Time Reading Program collection arrived: The Sword in the Stone. I had no idea these two books were connected until I started reading. It seemed crazy coincidental, so guess what I am reading now?

Before I could start The Sword in the Stone, I found myself in the waiting room for a very tardy doctor with nothing to read except books on my ipad. So I started a short novella, The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide. It turned out also to be a book about an animal and grief, though this time the grief comes from the loss of the animal.

The Guest CatMarketed as a novel, this book strongly hinted at memoir due to its first person narrative by a writer character, and the specificity of dates given in the narrative. It tells the story of a childless couple, one of whom is a writer, renting a converted teahouse cottage on an estate in the heart of Tokyo. The cottage is in the large, semi-wild garden of the estate which is shaded by a huge zelkova tree, and the whole property is an oasis reached only by a small zigzagging alley-like street. The couple can hear their neighbors clearly and one family adopts a cat that starts to visit the garden and finally the cottage. The couple become wildly attached to this cat that is not theirs. When the cat disappears (dies), they are utterly grief-stricken.

I didn’t think the book was particularly well translated — it seemed a bit flat — but I really did enjoy it both for the way it followed H is for Hawk and the memories it evoked for me. I rented an apartment in downtown Tokyo in the early 90s off a zigzagging alley over the ikebana studio of my elderly landlady. It looked out over a tiny (but rather decrepit) garden which had plum and persimmon trees. My landlord grew daikon radishes in a rooftop vegetable garden over my apartment. I always imagined being showered with dirt and radishes in a violent earthquake. My roommate would often leave the windows open and we’d come home to find a warm depression on one of our beds, so we knew that one of the semi-wild neighborhood cats had come in to take a nap. Unfortunately, I attribute the horrendous flea infestation we got in the apartment (in my clothes, the beds, everywhere) to those visitors. As a result, I feel a bit less sentiment about those guest cats than Hiraide did.

Still, I enjoyed this book very much and recommend it as a quick enjoyable story, perfect for long spells in waiting rooms.

H is for Hawk
personal copy
Grove Press, 2014

The Guest Cat
Kawade Shobo Shinsha, Tokyo, 2001
Translation by Eric Selland, New Directions Paperback Original, 2014

4 thoughts on “Hawks, Cats, & Grief

  1. Bellezza says:

    I hate when my post is lost! For no apparent reason! That’s the worst. But, I’m so glad you recovered it, or rewrote it, or whatever you did so that it would reappear. I have long wanted to read both of these books: H is For Hawk, and The Guest Cat. I didn’t know that they were linked as you so cleverly pointed out for us, in terms of grief, but that seems an emotion I come closer in contact with than any other these days. As my parents age, my father particularly, I know this is a road I will be embarking upon sooner vs. later.

    I have an enormous passion for Japanese literature, running the annual Japanese Literature Challenge (which I believe has run its course since last year was the eighth). At any rate, I find that whether it’s due to translation or simply the style, Japanese literature often seems flat to me as well, although the current running underneath is deep.

    I so enjoyed your post. As you can see, it has me thinking…and longing for both of these books which I had already downloaded the sample of (for both! previously!) on my kindle.


    • RareBird says:

      I don’t know that I could have planned a better pairing of books. They were chosen so randomly, but complimented each other so well. I mentioned that both are about grief, but they both also deal with the sometimes obsessive and irrational ways we try to process it.

      Glad you enjoyed the post so much and look forward to hearing your impressions when you read them!

      I’ve seen your Japanese Literature Challenge — and always wanted to participate. I’m curious about which are your favorites. I feel a bit sheepish about how relatively few Japanese books I’ve read, and would love some good recommendations!


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