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Book Review: ‘H is for Hawk,’ by Helen Macdonald


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H is for Hawk grips you as fiercely as the eight talons on Helen Macdonald’s trained goshawk, Mabel. It grips you and doesn’t let you go because it is one of those rare books—partly a memoir of grief, partly a psychobiography of another writer, T. H. White, partly a poetic evocation of the natural world—that are masterpieces. Enthralling. Dazzling. Brilliant. Feral in its wildness and intensity. I couldn’t put it down. Nor will you.

The arc of the memoir is fairly straightforward, although the structure of the tale it tells is not.

Helen Macdonald’s father, a professional British newspaper photographer, has unexpectedly died. His daughter—an author, poet, illustrator, historian, naturalist—is in her last year as a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, and she is falling apart, stunned by a deep bereavement she cannot express. Invoking the poet Marianne Moore, who wrote, “The cure for loneliness is solitude,” she withdraws from her life, her friends, and her family, and decides to purchase, from Germany, for a large sum, a 10-week-old goshawk to train. The memoir spans the year after her father’s death, during which she trains the hawk, Mabel, identifies with and almost loses herself in the hawk, then slowly emerges from her year of depression and near madness and resumes her life.

Helen Macdonald is a unique individual. A watcher—like her father—she is also, unusually, an experienced falconer. Captivated by hawks in early childhood, she recalls the memorable day she saw, at the age of 12, her first trained goshawk. Yet she never wanted to train a goshawk, which is considered a vicious predator difficult to train, until the impulse to do so suddenly overtook her and became an obsession after her father’s death.

Her urge to train a hawk is intertwined with the life of T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King and The Goshawk. Raised by cruel, unloving parents and sadistically beaten in one of England’s classic “public” boarding schools, he becomes a gentle teacher, repressing his sadomasochistic impulses and, in the tradition of gay writers who write about their pets, writes a book, The Goshawk, which the author turns to when training Mabel.  “I understood why people considered it a masterpiece,” she writes. “For White made falconry a metaphysical battle. Like Moby Dick or The Old Man and The Sea, The Goshawk was a literary encounter between animal and man that reached back to the Puritan traditions of spiritual contest.” Macdonald realizes that her “urge to train a hawk was for reasons that weren’t entirely my own. Partly they were his.”

So the book encompasses two literary and moral narratives, that of Macdonald and T. H. White. The intermingling of their stories and the moral dilemmas embedded in training and caring for a predatory bird make up the heart of the book, and add up to quite a complex tale, full of paradox. As Macdonald writes, “White always took great care to be gentle precisely because he wanted to be cruel.” So Macdonald, who “hates killing things,” spends her days roaming the countryside helping Mabel kill things, because falconry is mostly about killing and death. “Hunting makes you animal,” Macdonald observes, “but the death of an animal makes you human.”

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