In H Is for Hawk, Grief Takes Flight

Helen Macdonald's heartfelt memoir documents how the author found comfort in falconry after the death of her father.

Grove Press/Reuters/The Atlantic

Of all the emotions, it’s tempting to think of grief as the most primal; to imagine it in animal form, its eyes trained on a target’s tiniest movements, only to bear down upon its prey, dig its talons into it, and sweep the unwitting subject clean off its feet.

In Helen Macdonald’s heartfelt memoir, H Is for Hawk, the Cambridge historian is about to leave the house at the beginning of chapter two when she picks up the phone and learns that her father has just died. “My legs broke, buckled, and I was sitting on the carpet, phone pressed against my right ear,” she writes.  It’s five chapters later when she gets back up again, this time with her arm outstretched and gloved, and with a hawk named Mabel sitting on it.

Macdonald’s book, the 2014 winner of both the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book of the Year Award, is an account of how the author recovers from the sudden loss of her father by adopting and training a goshawk. She intertwines chapters about birds of prey, a 1930s author named T.H. White, and Macdonald's family, and the prose is airtight, leaving little room for readers to transition between narratives. This, however, is intentional. “One of the things that grief does is really shatter the idea of a narrative,” Macdonald told The Guardian in an interview, although her book is compelling evidence that grief can enable literary genres to transcend their structure.

Macdonald’s choice of coping strategy isn’t as random as it might seem: Habits of observation tied the author and her father, a photographer, close together. A young Macdonald could gaze at the wild birds at the zoo for hours, and begged for her parents’ permission to accompany local falconers on a hunting walk when she was 12 years old. Her father never questioned his daughter’s Victorian interests; rather he taught her falconry terminology and patience on bird-watching expeditions. These early lessons persist: Macdonald’s language is mostly technical and restrained. But her strongest lines trace the visual details that honor her father's profession.

Time didn’t run forwards any more. It was a solid thing you could press yourself against and feel it push back; a thick fluid, half-air, half-glass, that flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards so that new things I encountered, then, seemed souvenirs from the distant past.

In the hazy aftermath of her father’s death, Macdonald has a vivid recurring dream about a hawk, which prompts her to raise one. Once the bird, named Mabel, arrives, Macdonald develops a profound love and attachment toward the bird and feels for the first time in months that she has a purpose. The new companion inspires fresh routines and rhythms, and the author is as indefatigable in her long walks with Mabel to new meadows, hills, and forests as she is in her descriptions of them. On their very first walk, Macdonald’s words, like her movements and her emotions, feel renewed: “Everything seems hot and clean and dangerous and my senses are screwed to their utmost, as if someone had told me the park was full of hungry lions.”

From then on, she vividly describes the world through Mabel’s eyes. Writing on behalf of a creature who can “see polarised light, too, watch thermals of warm air rise, roil, and spill into clouds” could be insurmountable but Macdonald succeeds with flair thanks to the many years she spent studying her father taking photographs. Acquainting herself with Mabel on their first morning together, she listens carefully to the “wet click, click, click of her blinking” and hears a familiar sound. Mabel’s instincts, like her father’s, are to frame, angle, and zoom.

The author is careful to treat her subject matter with deference. Her emotional episodes are taut and wry; her references to friends and family are grateful, and Mabel is described in the richest language Macdonald can generate. She educates her readers about falconry’s extensive history, and notes without judgment—as an academic would—how male-dominated the sport is. To tame a hawk is to “man” it, and a hawk primed to kill is “in yarak,” which is slang for penis in Turkish. “Never doubt that falconry is a boys’ game,” Macdonald writes, but her subsequent chapters challenge the notion without fuss.

This human-beast relationship runs parallel to that of T. H. White, the author of the canonical The Once and Future King. White, also an animal lover, kept a hawk, Gos, and wrote about their time together. He never meant for it to be published. But a publisher saw potential and The Goshawk was released in 1951, clogged with an insecurity and paranoia Macdonald hated when she first read the book as a little girl. Her aversion is understandable: Through direct quotes and her own summaries, Macdonald shares painful excerpts of White accidentally starving his hawk, depriving it of sleep, and losing himself to alcohol. She rediscovers the book while working with Mabel, but the deliberate inclusion of so much of White’s personal and professional misery (such as his repressed homosexuality) weighs down her story. In the final chapters, Macdonald does explain that White wrote about his unhappy pets to resurrect them, but it’s hard not to conclude that her ghosts would have been sufficient.

Far more intriguing is Macdonald’s own dissolution into the wild:

Grief had spurred me to fly the hawk, but now my grief was gone. Everything was gone except this quiet sylvan scene. Into which I intended to let slip havoc and murder. I stalked around the edge of the wood, crouching low, holding my breath. My attention was microscopically fierce. I’d become a thing of eyes and will alone.

The author experiences less confident moments of transformation as well, and isn’t shy to share them. She uses the popular notion of grief’s five stages to examine the unusual conversions she goes through as the book progresses, but her loyalty to her father’s memory never lets the reader question her humanity. Rather, Macdonald mines grief for its wildness, and allows that to manifest each time she’s hunting with her hawk, breaking a rabbit’s neck or plucking a pheasant.

The book does suffer from scratches. Macdonald, also a poet, frequently moves between past and present tense, whether telling her story or White’s, which can become distracting. She alters sentence length and cadence to paint the landscape that Mabel is about to fly through, but plods through book titles when contextualizing White’s and her own research into falconry. But these quibbles don't detract from the focus of the book, which is about how grief transforms its subjects: from domestic to wild, earth to air, defense to attack. From Helen to hawk.