“H is for Hawk”
Author: Helen Macdonald
Publisher: Grove Press
Price: $16.00 (Paperback)
“H is for Hawk” has come to my attention because it has already won prizes in Britain and was a “New York Times” bestseller in spite of being nearly unclassifiable by genre.
“Hawk” is certainly a memoir. Helen Macdonald tells the story of a particularly stressful part of her life, beginning essentially with the sudden death of her father, in his sixties and working as a professional newspaper photographer in London. The shock of his death sends Macdonald into a depression that threatens to unhinge her entirely.
At the same time, Macdonald’s three-year fellowship as a research scholar of the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University is ending. She will be without a job and without a home, since her fellowship provided a house as well.
Although this is the most stressful imaginable time, she nevertheless chooses to take on the training of a goshawk, a large and ferocious bird of prey.
At first I took this to be madness and was relieved to learn, some fifty pages in, that Macdonald had considerable experience training falcons, a smaller and slightly less difficult raptor.
And so the reader learns a great deal about falconry. Raptors can be trained, never tamed. We learn that the bird must be at an exact flying weight, that “manning” a raptor involves keeping a goodly supply of dead chicks and rabbit parts in your freezer. We learn training technique, with its rapturous successes and heartbreaking failures, and we learn terminology. You will know forever what jesses and creances are, and what it means for a bird to bate.
Macdonald will sometimes anthropomorphize the hawk, sometimes identify with its bouts of terror, its soaring ecstasy. Training the hawk takes her “to the edge of being human” and she sometimes sees through Mabel’s eyes. She even says, “I’d turned myself into a hawk.” But, finally, the hawk is forever other, wild, never tame.
Some of this seems vaguely familiar from movies, television or fiction. It came as a complete surprise, however, that in spring, raptors moult, lose and replace all their feathers, and cannot hunt for many weeks at a time. During this period, Mabel, the goshawk, is kept in an aviary.
Macdonald had been fascinated by falconry all her life, has read a great many treatises on the sport, many of them medieval and Renaissance works, but becomes particularly attached to the work of T.H. White, author of “The Once and Future King.” White, a tormented soul who had been abused in the British “public” school system and was a closeted homosexual with sadistic urges, resigned from his job as schoolmaster, moved to a country cottage and tried desperately to train a goshawk. Macdonald, also feeling herself emotionally alienated from the mass of mankind, identifies with White in many respects, and we learn his life story along with hers.
This narrative is thus both biography and autobiography, but it also includes some of the most evocative nature writing one can imagine. In prose that often morphs into a prose-poem, Macdonald describes the English countryside: fields, forests, heaths and the mysterious, myth-laden chalk lands.
The chalk lands, and the British countryside in general, evoke the British past of King Arthur and Merlin the wizard, and seem to put Macdonald in touch with history, moving across time, in powerful ways. “Old England is an imaginary place,” she acknowledges, “built of words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings,” but there are moments that seem to transcend time, and falconry seems to generate those moments.
Some of those moments are unexpected and disturbing to Macdonald.
Seeing her with the hawk summons up the past for an English couple she runs into on a walk, but not in a way she likes. “Isn’t it a relief that there’s still things like that, a real bit of Old England left, despite all these immigrants coming in?”
Reading “H Is for Hawk” is an intense, even stressful, experience. The prose is detailed, yet pitched at a high emotional level. This is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown and it is uncertain for a while whether falconry will help by diverting her from her pain or just finish her off.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.