H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for HawkIn H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald‘s first book published in the U.S. and winner of the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book of the Year in the U.K. and Ireland, the British author describes bereavement in this way: “It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘ to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’… It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.” But by creating a record of her near-madness following her father’s sudden and unexpected death in 2007, Macdonald did try to share her loss — and we’re better off for it. The prodigious H Is for Hawk is one of the most brutal yet redemptive “grief memoirs” you’ll ever have the (yes) pleasure of reading.

Of her anguish during that dark period, Macdonald writes with authority and restraint. For one, she’s smart enough not to drown the reader in sorrow or cloyingly intimate details about her family. (Many memoirists make this mistake; it almost always has the opposite of the desired effect.) Hers is a private mourning and what we learn about who her father was — his lauded career as a photojournalist, his close relationship with his only daughter — is delivered sparingly and from a tasteful distance. Instead Macdonald, an experienced falconer, focuses the narrative on what she knows best: the training of her newly acquired goshawk, one of the most magnificent and murderous predators in the wild.

The choice is a crucial one and it keeps the pages swiftly turning. When the then 30-something Macdonald meets the bird she names Mabel for the first time, she’s at a low point — months away from finishing her research fellowship at the University of Cambridge and without kids, a romantic partner or a permanent home. But rather than wallow in the absence of these comforts, Macdonald finds solace in a new routine devoid of people or the jarring feelings they inspire. From engaging Mabel in a game of throw-and-catch with bits of crumpled up paper to scrambling through dense, rain-soaked thickets of thorns and mud in order to help Mabel stalk and devour its prey, Macdonald becomes all bird.

“Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” Macdonald writes of her metamorphosis. “To me she was bright, vital, secure in her place in the world … There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only and that was my refuge.”

Though Macdonald’s use of Mabel as coping agent anchors the majority of her memoir, let me be clear. This isn’t just another maudlin story about an animal that helps its master heal or even an extended metaphor of why animals can be used as proxies for humans or their emotions. Far from it. It’s more an offering of respect and devotion to a glorious bird who is wholly, fascinatingly inhuman and a eulogy to both the resilience and fragility of nature. Life in its staggering beauty and rough edges must push on come what may until careless human intervention, or something more divine, prevents it from doing so. “Loving landscapes like this involve a kind of a history that concerns itself with purity, a sense of deep time and blood-belonging,” Macdonald writes of the chalky ground neighboring her childhood home. “I think of all the complicated histories that landscapes have, and how easy it is to wipe them away.”

Keeping in mind Macdonald’s impressive command of nature writing and the book’s raw power and ability to transport, it comes as a surprise that H Is for Hawk does lumber on in parts, particularly in the sections where Macdonald shifts her attention to the life of T.H. White, repressed homosexual and author of Arthurian legends The Once and Future King (which became the basis of Disney’s “The Sword and the Stone”). Though integral to her recovery, not to mention fascinating reading (especially to austringers, history buffs, and their ilk), the in-depth retelling of White’s woes and failed attempts to train his own hawk as recorded in his book, The Goshawk, sometimes distracts rather than piques deeper interest.

Nonetheless, a smidge of disjointedness is a small price to pay for what’s otherwise a real stunner. Expectedly, Macdonald rejoins her life in the end, patched up and mostly unbroken. In doing so, she teaches herself (and us) a far-reaching lesson about our engagement with the wild and our world: “I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so… [but] hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”


Originally ran in The Oregonian (March 17, 2015)

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