Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk (2015)
H Is for Hawk does what many of my favorite non-fiction books do: it makes connections between things and ideas that are surprising and genuine and painful, enriching us by raising our experience of life to a new level of consciousness. It reminds us what it means to be human, and stretches the limits of that definition.
The primary connection here is between Macdonald’s grief following the death of her father, and her decision to take on the training of a goshawk, a notoriously difficult task. Many other threads come into play, too, notably a reconsideration of T.H. White’s book The Goshawk, and of its brilliant, wounded author. There’s a unique angle on history, too; the practice of falconry goes back to the dawn of civilization, and speaks to many of our most primal impulses and fears, casting light both on our hunger to survive, and on our impulse toward warfare and destruction.
Part of the fascination of falconry is that it evokes the age-old ritual magic of the hunter, who would put on skins or draw an animal over and over to try to become one with its essence. In her intense, grief-spurred communion with Mabel, her goshawk, Macdonald experiences the pull of this totemic magic. In vivid, striking prose she makes us feel what it is like to dissolve some of one’s humanity into the vastness of nature. But that is not, and cannot be the whole story, as she concludes: “In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.” Her words enable us to go on that journey as well, and to emerge with a new perspective on grass, stones, trees, the complex web of all living and breathing things.
And as in her sorrow Helen lives and identifies with this alien creature, she finds her way back to who she is and how she can re-enter a life that seemed altogether broken. It’s an intimate, tender, fierce story, as beautiful and dangerous as the hawk that glows at its center.
Release date: March 3, 2015; originally published in Britain by Jonathan Cape in 2014