English writer Helen Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk is one of the most brilliantly conceived and written books of the year. I passed on buying it three times, as I couldn’t decide if it might be fascinating, or boring, or some kind of gimmick (alas, one does approach so much culture with those stipulations and/or concerns lately). But every time I’d see it, or read about it, it intrigued me, so I bought and read it. It is both fascinating, and brilliant, and the most nearly unique book I’ve read in decades. And it’s important to remember that it’s not a novel, it’s a memoir, of a period of time after the writer’s father dies. As with Joan Didion, in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, both of these commandingly brilliant women attempt to manage or deflect their grief and mourning by turning to other modes of thinking (magical). In its way, Macdonald’s memoir is just as successful as Didion’s; both memoirs of the year of grief (Macdonald’s time frame is a little less clear, but it begins with her father’s death and ends with his memorial service, with about a year in between the two events).
Macdonald presents herself as a very shy young girl, who spent a lot of time outdoors with her photographer father, and one of the things they loved to do together was to watch falconers and men who train hawks: those shared experiences define Macdonald’s childhood, as she presents it here: both father and daughter are watchers, recorders of events, and both stay outside immediate participation of events; Macdonald’s training of Mabel, the goshawk in this book, will help her discover so many intellectual and emotional traits that she has shared with her father, and thus her hawk becomes a living way for her to dig deeply into her grief, withdrawing nearly entirely from daily living, and to become almost ‘feral’, to use the author’s word, as the wildness of her grief is reflected in the wildness of the hawk. Macdonald has clearly worked and lived with predatory birds before, so her decision to buy and to raise this baby goshawk is not a decision she makes without prior knowledge, and she also has a small group of friends in the world of hawks who help her when she needs help (both specific help with Mabel–a great name, often shortened to “Mabes” by Macdonald) and obliquely emotional. Macdonald’s best female friend, too, is an important secondary player in this memoir, as she stands by Macdonald and gives her wide berth for her eccentricities and her grief.
We the readers are privy to the rearing of a goshawk, without excessive detail, and Macdonald also goes through her journey by reading T.H. White’s The Goshawk, a book in which White also lets his own personality traits be manifested through his (mostly unsuccessful) rearing of his hawk–several hundred years exist between White’s world and Macdonald’s. Thus, Macdonald has a standard of sorts by which she can judge her own bonding with her hawk, and she tries with great success to avoid the mistakes that White made: these comparisons are some of the most fascinating passages in the book, allowing Macdonald to comment upon sweeping social changes and/or repressions in White’s world–mainly sexual, it turns out–but both writers attempt to work through their own emotional issues through the nurturing of each’s hawk. Be prepared to be utterly mesmerized by Macdonald’s relationship with Mabel, from the beginning, when the hawk is only a few weeks old, to her first controlled flights (controlled by Macdonald: that a wild predatory bird can so bond with a human is incredibly fascinating–and beyond certain obvious Pavlovian responses). Hawks have to be a certain weight, it appears, before than can fly any distances, and every time Mabel takes off, looking for rabbits and pheasants, in particular, Macdonald can never know if she will return: and when she does, we are as thrilled for Macdonald as she must have been. The author also quite willingly plays a major role in helping Mabel polish off her prey, routinely ripping off rabbit’s feet , pheasant feathers and the like to hide as future food/bait for Mabel. That particular part of the bonding between woman and hawk is fascinating, and may be the period when Macdonald is at her own most feral, most like the hawk itself. We readers are also treated to a reasonably short history of falconing and of how working with falcons and hawks became upper class ‘sports’ in England, India, Persia: it turns out that German and England are both natural breeding grounds for hawks, so we learn early environmental histories of those countries as well: such is the erudition of the writer, and our fascination in return.
Just as there’s one specific moment when Joan Didion comes out of her daze/madness/grief, the same kind of moment appears in H is for Hawk, and we readers become aware that Macdonald has survived the worst of her grief , and will begin to surface out of it, which, symbolically, she does when she reads a eulogy she wrote for her father at the memorial service in his honor/memory. The tone of the memoir begins to lighten up some, as Macdonald begins her return to the world she left when her father died. Didion, too, lightens her tone, some, in her memoir of grief and mourning: if you’ve not read Didion’s book, reading these back to back would be a fascinating study in the minds of two of the most brilliant women writers/thinkers of our day.
H is for Hawk is entirely brilliant, riveting, written with spare prose–not as minimalist as Didion’s, but similar in impact and effect. It may be the surprise book of the year, and one of the finest memoirs I’ve ever read. And Helen Macdonald is young, and so we’ve all sorts of future books yet unwritten by her to await: I’ll be first in line.