H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald came out earlier this year to rave reviews, which were well-deserved. In the jacket copy Helen MacDonald claims “poet” as one of her various trades, and while I am not a poetry guy—seriously, come up with a plot, I know it’s hard but try—her background shows here in the best way, with vivid phrasing in every paragraph.
The book, about Macdonald’s training of a vicious goshawk named Mabel, is also a memoir of grief—a popular genre at my neighborhood bookseller, where it seemed as if half the memoirs on display were about coping with death or disease. As I bought this book I was reminded of a line I saw years ago in Spy magazine, about how we’d know that the boomer generation was ending its run when New York magazine ran a feature on the hottest funeral parlors. We’re getting there.
Macdonald is grieving over the death of her father, with whom she shared a love of birds, and who was a photojournalist and a good dad. Toward the end of the book Macdonald sifts through her father’s belongings and finds a memento which dispels her anguish. It’s a great love scene.
But the book’s unexpectedly star is late author T.H. White. The Hawk gets the cover and the title, but the man who wrote The Once and Future King steals the show. White also wrote a book called The Goshawk, which Macdonald read as a hawk-fascinated 12-year-old and disliked. But she comes back to it now and finds new depth there, and in White’s tortured life story. He was a closeted gay man who poured his frustrations into his writing in sad and touching ways. White’s struggles with his hawk—who ultimately flies off on him—were his struggles with himself.
The same is true of Macdonald. The funny thing about her adventures with Mabel the goshawk is that, while they are rendered in fascinating detail, they amount to surprisingly little. Toward the end Macdonald recognizes that obsessive hawk training was an ill-conceived strategy for coping with her father’s death because she threw herself into a harsh and isolating discipline what she really needed was more human company. For a different personality the H could have easily been for Heroin, except that the habit would have been 8,000 times harder to kick. But Macdonald’s H was not so much a solution as a thing to let go of.