H is for Hawk
“A writer of extreme beauty, a shaper of divine sentences, Macdonald is also a memoirist who understands the power of telling a story . . .”
Wings. That must be it. Lift. The wild flutter of transcendence. The reason we turn to birds when somebody we loved has died. The reason we look for feathered things in skies otherwise stark with absence.
The Helen Macdonald we meet on the pages of H Is for Hawk is a poet, a naturalist, an historian of science, a falconer, and a daughter whose beloved father has suddenly died. This “quiet man in a suit with a camera on his shoulder, who had set out each day in search of things that are new” was doing his job on a London street when it happened. Macdonald was leaving the house in a “hop-skippity” state when her mother called with the news.
In the days and weeks following her great loss, Macdonald’s world is scrambled. Grief is a compounding condition. Insomnia shreds logic. A “kind of madness” descends. In the throes of it all, Macdonald makes a decision that will change her life: She will train a goshawk, a breed of bird notorious for its feral heart.
The goshawk that Macdonald adopts ultimately earns the name “Mabel.” But before there is a name, there is mad love at first sight: “Her beak was open, her hackles raised; her wild eyes were the color of sun on white paper, and they stared because the whole world had fallen into them at once.”
Into the house that Macdonald is renting comes this bird, filling the place “with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.” Trust is an intimate dance. Macdonald yields to her readers its slow unfolding as she writes of the nature of hawks, the language of tethers, the crush of “convulsive” feet upon a gloved hand, those first breathless flights through low sky from a rail back to Macdonald’s fist. She writes, too, of the need to become “invisible,” a talent, Macdonald tells us, that she, a practiced “watcher” of life, has in spades.
But taming this goshawk will not be easy. It will fill Macdonald with the keenest despair. It will grace her with survival.
A writer of extreme beauty, a shaper of divine sentences, Macdonald is also a memoirist who understands the power of telling a story far bigger than herself. Hawk is rich with history, nature, scene, embrace. It is the antidote to self-absorption.
It is also a book emboldened by the story of T. H. White, the author who not only wrote The Once and Future King but also a small book, The Goshawk, about his own attempt to train a bird. White is a palpable presence throughout Hawk. He is as alive as Macdonald and Mabel—doubting, angry, failing, flustered, broken. Again and again, Macdonald returns to White and to his words, to this lonesome man who doesn’t get many things right and who, in training a bird, faces his greatest demons.
Transference. Transcendence. Hawk is a true story riven with magic. It is poetry and it is wisdom. Strange, ethereal, pulsing, alive. Fierce and feral, too.