It is a wintry evening in Cambridge. As the crowds disperse along with the daylight, Helen Macdonald decides it is finally safe to go out. Her mission is to exercise while managing to avoid people. People are dangerous. As they emerge into the lamplight ahead on the path, she quickly turns away. The scene reads as one of the most tense walks in the park ever written; it feels like she is trying desperately to survive. She does this because she has a Goshawk on her arm, and she finds people unfamiliar. The pair have spent many days being alone together, in the living room of a college house.

“In Macdonald, you find a confidante, a person who can guide you through these hard times, and, if you let her, transform the way you view life.”

Over the past year, we have all had to learn how to cope with isolation. Through a cruel twist of epidemiological fate, loneliness has become our protector. Media from before feels strangely deceptive as a result of just how alien this situation seems. Characters have become unrelatable in all their freedom to just be with people, and those describing loneliness seem shallow, for these writers do not know what it really means to be alone. Not like us.

That’s why it can come as a surprise when a memoir published six years before encapsulates the experience so perfectly. Even more surprisingly, Macdonald manages to turn loneliness into something profoundly beautiful.

"We all miss Cambridge, but these times won't last forever."Eliza Pepper

I tried to read H is For Hawk during my first Michaelmas at Cambridge. I was grieving, and I suffered from insomnia and body dysmorphia. Worst of all, I had no friends, and I felt completely alone. Every night, in the early hours of the morning, I would try and pick up the book. Always, I would put it down again. It was just far too hard. Too real. Here was a woman who was inside my brain. This lonely woman who used training a hawk as escapism after the death of her father, and who was doing all she could to keep away from people. As beautiful as her prose was, it felt drowned in the ugliness of the events.

You would think that during this time of government-sanctioned loneliness, the book would not be any easier to read – but nothing could be further from the truth. In Macdonald, you find a confidante, a person who can guide you through these hard times, and – if you let her – transform the way you view life.


Mountain View

On revisiting my childhood in Kettle's Yard

We all miss Cambridge, but these times won’t last forever. This memoir is the perfect form of escapism. Not only does Macdonald exquisitely capture all the complexities of college grounds, libraries, and Cambridge’s surrounding countryside; she is a Cambridge student at heart, and so she writes like one. She even decides to present some wonderful historical context for falconry, and performs great source analysis on the memoir of T. H. White, a fellow lonely hawk trainer. If you would love to become fluent in falconry terminology, or would like to know how to make a jess, then this is a perfect addition to your bookshelf.

Far from pompously academic, Helen Macdonald is a weird student. She verbalises that feeling of imposter syndrome – it does not stop when you become a research fellow. She writes about missing supervisions, going to the library and reading anything other than what you need for your subject; all the wonderful flaws which make up the typical chaotic Cambridge student. It is a breath of fresh air for a research fellow, of all people, to publicly acknowledge how dysfunctional many of us actually are.

“Sometimes a hawk will fly back, sometimes it won’t. The beautiful thing is that you can adapt to all of that, if you only accept that things change.”

In training Mabel, Helen Macdonald learns how to accept circumstances as they come. She gathers extensive knowledge, and from that many expectations. She is an academic, so of course she turns to books to understand how she should process the death of her father; of course she trusts 19th century aristocrats on hawk behaviour. However, the main skill she develops through her relationship with Mabel is adaptation. Setbacks do not last forever. There are many unexpected joys in grief. Sometimes a cup of tea and a phone call to a friend is what you need when you want to be alone. Goshawks play. Sometimes a hawk will fly back, sometimes it won’t. The beautiful thing is that you can adapt to all of that, if you only accept that things change.