Review: ‘H Is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

H Is for HawkH Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Helen Macdonald got a hawk.

And not just a hawk. A goshawk, perhaps the most ferocious and challenging of its predator family.

Macdonald wasn’t a novice. She’d studied birds from childhood and had experience in falconry. But this bird wasn’t just a bird — it was a lifeline. Helen Macdonald’s father had died, and she was bereft.

She tells the story of her bird, her education and her grief — especially her grief — in “H Is for Hawk,” her 2014 memoir. She also intersperses her tale with that of author T.H. White, best known for “The Once and Future King,” who also had experience with goshawks and wrote a book about it. White’s story, though powerful in its own right, is the one part of “H Is for Hawk” that doesn’t quite work.

But the rest of the book is fine, and at times stunning. Macdonald has a knack for the poetic turn of phrase: “I knew I wasn’t mad mad because I’d seen people in the grip of psychosis before, and that was madness as obvious as the taste of blood in the mouth.” “I was alive, yes, but exhausted. I felt as if I were built of wool.” “The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things.” It was this sheer brilliance of language that kept me going, even when the story itself wandered into dense, nature-heavy passages like … well, like a rabbit in brambles. (Rabbits, a hawk’s choice dinner, are frequent visitors in “H Is for Hawk,” if only for food — though there’s an interesting digression about how a disease nearly killed off the rabbit population in Britain in the 1950s.)

The bird is named Mabel, a surprisingly friendly name for such a predator. In the beginning, Macdonald is emotionally clumsy with it, worrying over every little aspect of her training. Is the goshawk hungry? Is it angry? Is she going to lose it? She is as self-focused and neurotically lost as only the grief-stricken can be.

Every so often, she talks about her father, a renowned press photographer who was as apparently well-liked among his colleagues as he was beloved by his daughter. His sudden loss is obviously a hole that Macdonald seeks to patch — and patch rapidly — but finds that grief, like training, can only be worked with time.

She discovers (or rediscovers) new things about herself. Perhaps the most affecting is when she helps kill a rabbit Mabel has seized. She has to “harden (my) heart,” she notes, but adds, “I learned that hardening the heart was not the same as not caring. The rabbit was always important. Its life was never taken lightly.” She describes this time as very dark, but in it I found a refreshing honesty and even an empathy.

Time passes and Macdonald gets better — at handling Mabel, and in general. It’s in these last chapters of the book that it peters out. Macdonald’s prose — her short, sharp sentences — rarely falters, but now the story isn’t enough for them to carry.

This is, unfortunately, doubly true of White’s story, which she weaves throughout “H Is for Hawk.” On the one hand, the White she writes about was a poor falconer, who finally loses his bird. (He became a better practitioner later.) Moreover, he was a complex personality — perhaps too much so for “H Is for Hawk”: a closeted homosexual, an abused child, a self-loathing man — as a person, in many ways Macdonald’s opposite. At times I wanted to find out more about White; at times I just wanted him to vanish from the book, since he was taking away from Macdonald’s story. Overall, fascinating though White’s story is, I can’t say it worked for me in the context of “H Is for Hawk.”

Which is not to damn the whole of “H Is for Hawk” — far from it. Even if the entire book doesn’t measure up to its first half or two-thirds, it’s so wonderfully written, and so powerful in its strongest chapters, that I found myself lingering over passages again as I wrote this review. Hawks may have to eventually be set free, but “H Is for Hawk” is well worth returning to. Or, especially, reading for the first time.

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