Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk* is the best book I’ve read this year. It is simply stunning, and I suggest you go out and get a copy right now.
Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and a bestseller in the United Kingdom, H is for Hawk is described as part memoir, part natural history, and part literary history (I’d also add that it’s a study of the English landscape). In it, Ms. Macdonald takes readers through the harrowing months after her father’s sudden death in 2007, when stunned by the loss, she decided to distract herself from grief by training a goshawk, a notoriously difficult (and deadly) bird that she had never worked with before.
As Helen finds herself submerging into the hawk’s world, she also becomes immersed in T.H. White’s book The Goshawk, and with White himself. Best known now for The Once and Future King, White was a deeply troubled man who failed spectacularly when it came to training his goshawk, and as Helen explores his life we see the way his relationship with his hawk diverges from her relationship with her own goshawk, Mabel. While White, furious with his own life, seemed determined to make the hawk into his mirror, Helen runs from death and grief by nearly becoming the hawk—a futile pursuit, since the hawk is a death on wings. Surfacing proves immensely difficult.
Reading in the air, which seemed particularly appropriate in this instance.
I feel that I’m not explaining this book very well. Perhaps it would help if I told you that I dislike birds–they are, as Ms. Macdonald points out, essentially flying dinosaurs. I find their reptilian feet and eyes unnerving and their silence creepy (I like the twittering and what-not, romantic that I am). But I could not tear myself away from the descriptions of Mabel’s grace and prowess, and the complicated workings of her body and behavior. Reading H is for Hawk made me think for a full minute about trying falconry one day (more on that below).
That I found the book difficult to read at times is another testament to just how good it is. Having experienced sudden bereavement myself, I deeply admired Ms. Macdonald’s courage in telling it–blinding grief, that is–like it is, in all its ugliness, while at the same time I found myself drawing back at the painful thought of losing my own father, with whom I am very close. H is for Hawk is a moving testament to the love and life of Ms. Macdonald’s parents, especially her father, who encouraged and shared his daughter’s passion for observing the world, wild and otherwise, and noting all its detail.
Those years of watching and noticing are beautifully rendered in Ms. Macdonald’s clear, vivid prose, which ranges from fierce to tremulous and back again. That she is also a poet is no surprise. Here’s her description of her first sight of Mabel, as the box holding the hawk opens:
Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box an in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. (53)
At her well-attended first U.S. reading on Tuesday night at Harvard Bookstore, Ms. Macdonald read this passage and tipped her hat to Shakespeare (Referring to “fretful porpentine”: “That just dropped in there. I just wanted to say thank you, Mr. Shakespeare.”), which, combined with her self-deprecating humor (After an anecdote about showing birds of prey to schoolchildren: “Hawks are about 3000 percent more cool than I am, but they don’t talk very well.”) pretty much made me want to take her out to dinner to talk Hamlet and libraries. For those of you who read audiobooks, I can highly recommend this one, since Ms. Macdonald’s voice is perfectly suited to her material. In person she is funny, charming, and full of insight about books and birds and conservation. Falconers, it turns out, are great conservationists, and Ms. Macdonald makes a strong case both for how we tend to “give animals our meanings” (at the reading) and how “the wild can be human work” (H is for Hawk, 12).
I’m pleased as punch to have met her, though I do regret my shyness prevented me from asking about her favorite recipes for rabbit and pheasant.
(By the way, longtime readers of the blog will note that I hardly ever get out to readings; they tend to fall in the middle of bedtime for Mr. H the toddler, and I always miss the ticketed ones at Harvard Bookstore. It’s a measure of how great this book is that I made it my business to get to the reading, with an assist from the intrepid Mr. O and the bookstore, which thankfully didn’t require tickets this time.)
I highly, highly recommend H is for Hawk.
If you’re looking for more on the book, check out:
This review (with cool pictures of Mabel) by someone who actually knows something about birds
This interview (with excerpt) on NPR
The Grove Atlantic author book tour schedule
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.