H IS FOR HAWK. By Helen Macdonald. Grove Atlantic. 300 pages. $26.
Helen Macdonald sets the overture to “H is for Hawk,” her wonderful hybrid book, in the Brecklands (Broken Lands), a ramshackle environment of “twisted pine trees, burnt-out cars, and shotgun-peppered road signs” in East Anglia. She is there in England’s wildest place to see goshawks, the “birdwatcher’s Dark Grail.”
Right away, everything is strange and every sentence memorable. She addresses readers: “Have you ever seen a hawk catch a bird in your back garden? ... maybe you’ve glanced out of the window and seen there, on the lawn, a bloody great hawk murdering a pigeon ... and it looks the hugest, most impressive piece of wildness you’ve ever seen, like someone tipped a snow leopard into your kitchen and you find it eating the cat.”
The scale of the scene, and its incongruity, are very much to the point. Macdonald imagines the outsize visitor to the lawn, then she smells “Goshawk cocktail,” an icy, resinous scent, and a pair of them is bending and swerving nearby. Searching for goshawks, she says, is like waiting for grace.
Shortly after the opening scene, Macdonald’s father dies unexpectedly, and she loses her sense of dimension: of the vastness of time and especially of the distance between the wild and human worlds. She is deep in grief when she decides to get and train a goshawk. Four hundred years ago, this would not have been a radical maneuver; hawks on fists were as common on the streets of Cambridge in the 17th century as dogs on leashes are today. But for Macdonald, hawks are the stuff of obsession.
She begins to dream of nothing but hawks. She pores over books about falconry. Soon, she is standing on a Scottish quay waiting for the man who will deliver her own bird. Here is her first glimpse of the hawk she will call Mabel (short for amabilis, meaning lovable or dear): “My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel ... Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.”
Macdonald’s book tells the story of how she retreated from the populated world and became for a while distant and wild, like Mabel. She writes, “The hawk was everything I wanted to be — solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk.”
If her companion is murderous by nature (“Murder sorts them out,” a falconer friend tells her), Macdonald wills herself to be an accomplice in death. Her freezer is a morgue for Mabel’s meaty needs.
She makes a kind of journey to the underworld, but it’s also a fascinating excursion back in time into ancient practices and vocabulary. For the non-cognoscenti, learning of jesses, eyasses, bating, rousing, manning and all the rest is stimulating. And Mabel, who can fittingly be described as a “spooky pale-eyed psychopath” at times, has an adorable, goofy streak. She loves to play catch with rolled-up paper.
All the while that Macdonald is training her hawk, she is having a one-way conversation with T.H. White of “The Once and Future King” and “The Sword in the Stone” fame. When she was a child, Macdonald read White’s book “The Goshawk,” about his own patchy efforts to train a hawk that he named Gos. As a child, she was puzzled by an adult’s wish to write a book about what he had failed to do. In the end, White was inconsistent and sporadically cruel to his hawk, which ultimately flew away.
Training Mabel opens up a window for Macdonald into White’s life, and she comes to identify through him the habit of displacing fears and longings onto animals. White had learned through psychoanalysis that going back in one’s past is a way to revisit traumas and fix them. Somehow, he fastens on the idea, disastrously, that by conquering his hawk, he can conquer himself. His bird is all the things he wants to be: ferocious, cruel and unrestrained. In the end, Macdonald pronounces White’s efforts to civilize his hawk “a proper tragedy.”
Macdonald’s story, on the other hand, is not a tragedy. Partly by following the thread of White’s narrative, she restores her own balance with humanity. In the book’s final pages, she quotes White’s list of all the things Gos is, everything from Attila the Hun and an Egyptian hieroglyph to “one of the lunatic dukes or cardinals in the Elizabethan plays of Webster.” Her own experience has led her to the opposite conclusion. A bird, she finally realizes, is not a sign, waiting for us to interpret it. She loves Mabel, but living with her is “like worshiping an iceberg.” Coming out of the darkness of her wild year, Macdonald knows, “Human hands are for holding other human hands. Human arms are for holding other humans close.”
Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk” is a gorgeous book in every way, in the energy and subtlety of its prose, the precision and scope of its subject matter, and in its large heart and quick intelligence. When Macdonald looked into the crate of her hawk on that Scottish quayside, she saw “a box full of stars.” Her book is like that for its lucky readers.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.