H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (2014)

150309_r26195-945Helen Macdonald’s beloved father died unexpectedly, she plunged into grief, she acquired and trained a goshawk, the process of the successful training aided the process of successful mourning, and she wrote a book about it.

That’s the received line here, and it’s all true, but the book’s actually quite a bit more interesting than that “Hawk Pray Love” summary suggests. Chief among these is Macdonald’s decision to pack into her book a biography of T. H. White, and an analysis of his own book The Goshawk. It’s amusing to find that NYRB now calls The Goshawk “the predecessor to Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk,” as if the earlier work somehow derives from the later, instead of vice-versa. Amusing, but to the point, too, since I think Macdonald’s decision to make a literary connection with White is an important symbol of continuousness for her. “Someone came before me, then I lived, someone will come after me” is crucial mantra for one in the throes of grief.

As for the hawk–she’s called Mabel, but answers to combinations of frozen chicks and whistles–well, the hawk is magnificent. Macdonald writes beautifully about the training and the relationship she develops with Mabel. You could imagine such a story going horribly awry, with trainer and hawk “becoming one” and accounts of hunts written from the point of view of the hawk. Macdonald commits no such crimes; she’s relentlessly clear-headed and unsentimental as a writer, even when (especially when) she’s experiencing moments where she’s hopelessly muddle-headed and sentimental as a human.

This book succeeds beautifully as a memoir, a natural history, a biography, and a work of literary analysis. Quite a feat–I enjoyed it very much. I’ll read The Goshawk next, but FYI I wish I’d read it first.

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