Wednesday, March 25, 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk has already garnered two literary awards in Britain, where it was first published last year. The book has received the Costa Prize for book of the year and the Samuel Johnson prize for best work of nonfiction. It is a captivating memoir combining literary history, a treatise on falconry, nature writing, and an analysis of personal grief. Macdonald's prose is crystalline; the reader is transported into her world and into her sense of loss.

When Macdonald was a doctoral student at Cambridge, her father died suddenly of a heart attack. He was a photo-journalist and a man equally sensitive to nature and his surroundings. As Macdonald describes him, it is easy to understand her great sense of loss.

Yet her process of mourning is unusual. Captivated by the author T.H. White (The Once and Future King) and inspired by White's own tragic attempt at training a goshawk, Macdonald procures and sets about the task of training the hawk she names Mabel. As she explains:

Falconry for me was about revelling in the flight of the hawk, never in the death it brought...But that was not why I needed (Mabel). To me she was bright, vital, secure in her place in the world. Every tiny part of her was boiling with life, as if from a distance you could see a plume of steam around her, coiling and ascending and making everything around her slightly blurred, so she stood out in fierce corporeal detail. The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge. 

Intermingled within the book's chapters are references to White's memoir, The Goshawk, that details his struggle, and eventual failure, to train his own bird. Macdonald had read this book as a child and been captivated by it. Re-reading it as an adult, and having had experience with raptors, she is upset by his ineptitude. Yet she also empathizes with him in his desire to escape his sorrow through an animal. Macdonald's digressions into White's tormented soul, along with passages from The Goshawk, are masterfully woven into her own story. Having loved The Once and Future King and all the Arthurian legends, this reader greatly valued Macdonald's insights into the author and the book that made him famous.

Barbara Brotman, writing in the Chicago Tribune Printer's Row Journal, captures the essence of H is for Hawk:

The story begun in grief returns to it, as Macdonald brings her observer's eye and poet's voice to the universal experience of sorrow and loss. As deeply as she bonds with her hawk, in the end, she must decide what wildness can and cannot do for the suffering human heart.

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