Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk” arrives bearing accolades, including the Costa Prize for book of the year in Britain, where the memoir was first published last year. The recognition is well-deserved: The book is an elegantly written amalgam of nature writing, personal memoir, literary portrait and an examination of bereavement. Its considerable accomplishment is to hold all these parts in balance.
Macdonald was in her late 30s and a lecturer at Cambridge when her father, a photojournalist, died suddenly, and young, of what appears to have been a heart attack. The arc of the book — its flight — originates in the shock of that loss.
Macdonald found herself withdrawing from work, friends, family, human interaction. She was defined by grief. In this state, she seized upon a very personal refuge and also began to track a literary figure. From early childhood, she had been obsessed with falconry. She read the classic texts, absorbed precociously the upper-class terms associated with falconry and later flew her own falcons. While still young, she came upon a curious book called “The Goshawk,” an early work by T.H. White , who was later celebrated for “The Sword in the Stone” (1938) and “The Once and Future King” (1958). Macdonald’s book begins a fascinating dance with “The Goshawk” and its author.
Like Macdonald, White was at one time withdrawing from the world. In the mid-1930s he was a desperately unhappy, fearful man, anguished about his homosexuality and an awareness of his own sadism. White abruptly left his own teaching position and moved into a cottage at the edge of the school grounds where, he decided, he would deploy extremes of patience and calm to train a goshawk. That he had no idea how to do this and made a fearful mess of it, damaging both himself and his hawk, is a key part of Macdonald’s book.
This link (two writers, two wounded withdrawals) might feel precious or contrived were it not so clearly the case that Macdonald’s decision to buy and train not a falcon but a far more formidable goshawk (a bird she had never loved) sprang directly from her engagement with White and the book he wrote — a book that had mystified and angered her as a child.
The threads are woven skillfully. We engage with the modern woman coping (badly, she makes clear) with loss, and also with T.H. White, beset by many demons. Both trying to become one with a raptor, to share in its force and freedom while engaged in the process of taking away that freedom.
Macdonald buys her goshawk from an Irish breeder on a quay in Scotland. The man arrives with two birds for two buyers. Macdonald is there first. She watches the breeder take a goshawk from its crate. She sees a glory — and is quickly told the bird was meant for the other buyer. The second hawk is uncrated, and Macdonald is horrified by its “blank and crazy” appearance. Her heart has been lost, she writes, to the first bird. She pleads, desperately, for a swap, and the breeder obliges. An acquiescence, Macdonald writes, that likely stemmed from his awareness that he was dealing with someone not entirely stable. The power of the scene — and indeed the book as a whole — emerge as the reader realizes the same thing. Grief has that power, she is telling us.
The writing is strong throughout and frequently superb. Here’s part of that first glimpse of what does become her hawk (named Mabel, eventually): “The man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. . . . She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. . . . Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.”
That “gold falling through water’’ stuns, both for the acuteness of the image and for how Macdonald evokes the elusiveness of so much that we all want. She wants her father back; she wants her hawk trained and connected to her; she wants Mabel to lead her into wildness; she wants the natural world guarded and preserved in its disappearing golden glory. Needs accumulate, conflict and are bravely explored.
The book doesn’t shy away from the violence of a goshawk. They are, Macdonald often repeats, murderous creatures. When Mabel is finally ready to hunt, Macdonald becomes in effect a handmaiden of death. Goshawks kill their prey by eating it, not before. The author finds herself running across fields to break a caught rabbit’s neck in Mabel’s grasp, to be at least that merciful.
And in doing this, in reflecting upon what it means for her to be helping her bird kill, Macdonald began the journey back to her own humanity: “Turning into an animal can imperil the human soul.”
There is a reader’s paradox here. A strength of the book is the picture it offers of grief’s fierce power. We want this woman to make her recovery. But another kind of power has already emerged in remarkable passages where Macdonald and her goshawk are alone in a Cambridgeshire field, with her feeling feral, utterly alienated from human beings. As she tracks her way back to her life, wonder and strangeness recede. When the story moves from intensity and estrangement the descriptive language occasionally reaches for compensatory effect. The turn toward human existence leaves behind a revealed wildness. It recedes, like vanishing gold.
Macdonald, one suspects, has more honors to come, and they will be justified. This is a beautifully written and beautifully conceived work. It illuminates unexpected things in unexpected ways. There is also, at its heart, something quite wonderful: a book about a woman and her hawk and another tormented writer, and his is, also, movingly, a book about a daughter and her lost father. “I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.”
Guy Gavriel Kay’s most recent novel is “River of Stars.”
H IS FOR HAWK
By Helen Macdonald
Grove Press. 300 pp. $26