A retreat into wildness
February 11, 2015
I discovered Helen Macdonald’s memoir last year in British literary reviews. The praise left no doubt it would be an unusually good book to read. I also caught a Twitter post from someone who saw a friend reading the book on the London subway and remarked on its engaging power. Such a remark is common fare for Twitter, but the way this one was written told me something about this book makes it stand apart from others. I had to read it, this journey of grief taken by way of training a goshawk.
Helen Macdonald received one of those out-of-the-blue, devastating phone calls that turn the world upside down. Her father, a newspaper photographer, had died suddenly and unexpectedly. The shocking loss drove her into a ruined state, a kind of normal madness, she tells us, and to cope she bought Mabel, a goshawk, for £800 on a Scottish quayside. Mabel came home with her to Cambridge, England, where, in the surrounding fields, Macdonald trained the bird to hunt with her.
This behavior may have been grief-driven, but it was by no means irresponsible. In childhood, Macdonald became obsessed with birds of prey and devoured books on the topic. When she was 12 years old, she spent an afternoon with falconers, observing for the first time trained goshawks flying from the gloved fists of men. She worked among falconers in her adult years, taught falconry to beginners and trained hawks, but never a goshawk — a bird she describes as nervous, highly strung and psychopathic — until now.
The rigors of working with Mabel gave Macdonald purpose and a way to shut out the world. She writes openly about how the loss of her father created overwhelming feelings of insecurity, fear and panic. She worried about her sanity. The narrative result is raw emotion that grips the heart with poetic resonance. This is where Macdonald excels, writing honestly and philosophically about her inner turmoil at the same time she writes arrestingly about the wild outdoors. Her storytelling sings in language and thought.
Many scenes involve Macdonald running after flight-bound Mabel to keep up, crouching in bushes and collaborating with Mabel’s kills by flushing rabbits and pheasants. She learns Mabel’s moods and monitors her weight, stuffs the freezer with dead animals to feed Mabel and walks public areas with her on the gloved fist. She plays catch with Mabel inside the house with a paper ball. Here and there, tucked into the story, we read about the history of falconry, its terminology, challenges and failures. They are intriguing historical glimpses of this once aristocratic sport.
T. H. White, who wrote his own memoir about training a goshawk, is a strong presence throughout the narrative. Macdonald rebukes him for the horrible ways he abused his hawk, and yet she compassionately connects with him for the rite of passage that engaged him. White believed if he could conquer the goshawk, then he could conquer his tortured soul. Like Macdonald, he wanted to escape into the wild. The way Macdonald captures his life — with a kind of passion that’s haunted and fascinated — adds more reason to love this book. T. H. White is best known for writing The Once and Future King.
It’s been months since her father’s death when Macdonald speaks at his memorial service. Time in H Is for Hawk passes without much reference to dates, but we know Macdonald has isolated herself with Mabel for a long while. Being among the gathered people, she experiences a turning point, recognizing the gift of togetherness and support from friends and family. She seeks medical help for her depression and then spends Christmas with her mother and friends in Maine. She learns, gratefully, that one can live a life that includes both loved ones and Mabel’s wild world, something T. H. White struggled to achieve.
H Is for Hawk is indeed the stuff of engaging power. It won Britain’s 2014 Costa Book of the Year and Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, two highly prestigious awards. It will be available for purchase in the United States beginning of March 2015.