Helen Macdonald’s beautiful and nearly feral book reminds us that excellent nature writing can lay bare some of the intimacies of the wild world as well. Her book is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it. It draws blood, in ways that seem curative ... H Is for Hawk is good about death, about parents, about depression, about solitude and about keeping small cute, dead animals in your freezer to toss to your hawk. But it is especially good about class and gender.
Had there been an award for the best new book that defies every genre, I imagine it would have won that, too. H Is for Hawk is an improbable and hybrid creature. It is one part grief memoir, one part guide to raptors, and one part biography of T. H. White, who chronicled his maiden effort at falconry in The Goshawk, written just before he began work on The Once and Future King. I am describing Macdonald’s book by its parts for the same reason we describe a griffin by its parts—because how else would we do so? But it is coherent, complete, and riveting, perhaps the finest nonfiction I read in the past year.
...an elegantly written amalgam of nature writing, personal memoir, literary portrait and an examination of bereavement. Its considerable accomplishment is to hold all these parts in balance ... The threads are woven skillfully. We engage with the modern woman coping (badly, she makes clear) with loss, and also with T.H. White, beset by many demons. Both trying to become one with a raptor, to share in its force and freedom while engaged in the process of taking away that freedom ... This is a beautifully written and beautifully conceived work. It illuminates unexpected things in unexpected ways. There is also, at its heart, something quite wonderful: a book about a woman and her hawk and another tormented writer, and his is, also, movingly, a book about a daughter and her lost father.
In her breathtaking new book Helen Macdonald renders an indelible impression of a raptor’s fierce essence — and her own — with words that mimic feathers, so impossibly pretty we don’t notice their astonishing engineering.
Macdonald’s first sight of her bird, when the breeder lifts her out of the cardboard box she travels in, is one of the most memorable passages I’ve read this year, or for that matter this decade. The heat of the moment is enough to melt grammar ... Macdonald frames her book in part as a dialogue with a similar memoir, The Goshawk, by T.H. White, who’s best known for his Arthurian epic The Once and Future King. Macdonald is every bit his equal as a writer (as a falconer she’s much better), and thinking about White is a roundabout way for her to look at her own motivations for training Mabel in the wake of her father’s death, which aren’t simple.
Reading Macdonald’s short chapters and stunted sentences—little synapses from her now-SSRI-clouded brain—you get a little high. When the bird makes her first kill, the scene is indeed as graphic and pulsing as any Grafton thriller. And when Macdonald helps, we realize that Helen’s not the Hawk Woman, she’s the Hawk Mother. You’ll never see a bird overhead the same way again.
In this singular book that combines memoir and landscape, history and falconry, Macdonald robs from her anger by choosing to train and live with a robber bird, and in doing so, she becomes wild....That is what Macdonald tells us so eloquently in her fine memoir — that transformation of our docile or resigned lives can be had if we only look up into the world.
The art of Macdonald’s book is in the way that she weaves together various kinds of falling apart—the way she loops one unraveling thread of meaning into another ... What’s lovely about [it] is the clarity with which she sees both the inner and outer worlds that she lives in.
With a writer-magician’s deft hand, Macdonald weaves the highly specific worlds of historical and contemporary falconry seamlessly together with a haunting memoir of mourning ... Assured, honest and raw — she manages to keep her grief at bay until she doesn’t — Macdonald’s book is full of poetry, ranging from unfettered elemental grief, frustration, and rage, to pinnacles of liberating exhilaration. Much like Macdonald’s description of Mabel, H Is for Hawk is a soaring wonder of a book, 'a thing of perfect triumph.'”
To categorize this work as merely memoir, nature writing or spiritual writing would understate her achievement ... I can see the fascination [T.H.] White holds for her, but are these passages really necessary to the fabric of Ms. Macdonald’s book? I don’t think so. I discern something of Macdonald the scholar behind the White passages, and I want more of Macdonald the writer, because her prose glows and burns ... If there was any lingering sense that women could not be part of the hunt—that they should stay by the hearth—she blows it out the window.
Perhaps it is because the daughter's grief is so recent and pressing, whereas between Macdonald and White there is much greater emotional distance, but she is a better biographer of White than she is of her own father ... There is a highly polished brilliance to her writing and the short staccato declamatory sentence, sometimes of just a single word, is almost a signature of her style. Yet the syntax carries a persistent subliminal message of stress and anxiety and when we are presented with her repeated, if unsparingly honest, declarations of grief it is as if we already know it before she tells us. The total effect is a seeming excess of strong emotion. Yet elsewhere she deploys the same stylistic elements to immense effect.
Hawk inevitably brings to mind Cheryl Strayed’sbest-seller Wild. Both memoirists dealt with the desolating death of a parent by banishing themselves from civilized precincts; both came back with amazing stories. But to my mind, Hawk is a superior accomplishment. There’s not a line here that rings false; every insight is hard won; though Macdonald seldom ventures far from the edge of plump British exurbia, she penetrates the dark heart of wildness more fearlessly and more honestly than Strayed. On the slippery, sliding scale of narrative nonfiction, Macdonald has found the ideal balance between art and truth.
If this all sounds too dire, let me add that H Is for Hawk is one of the best books about nature that I've ever read. Macdonald's wonderful gift for language and her keen observations bring pleasure to every page ... Moreover, H Is for Hawk invigorates the genre of memoir, which over the last decade or so has become cluttered with hollow addiction porn. Macdonald was recovering from something, too, but her story is vastly enriched by history and by her intimate understanding of raptors.
White’s personal tragedies prove sobering and Macdonald’s descriptions of Mabel swooping in on furry or feathered victims are not for the squeamish. What saves the day is her sumptuously poetic prose ... Running through the whole proceedings like a fine red thread is the impact of a father’s death — the heartache Macdonald feels among family congregated at his memorial service or while standing alone in a field watching her hawk flying free. There is deft interplay between agony and ecstasy, elegy and rebirth, wildness and domesticity, alongside subtle reminders about the cruelty of nature and our necessary faith in humanity.
Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk is one of a kind, unless there are other grief memoirs/falconry tales/literary analyses out there. But really, it is one of a kind for its voice. British author Macdonald is a poet, her language rich and taut. As she descends into a wild, nearly mad connection with her hawk, her words keep powerful track ... The story begun in grief returns to it, as Macdonald brings her observer's eye and poet's voice to the universal experience of sorrow and loss.
Is it the kind of book you'd like? There's a lot said in our business about matching the right book to the right reader, through either a massively calibrated algorithm or a bookseller's neighborly acuity, but once in a while, no matter who the reader might be, all you need to say is 'Here, this book is good.' Are you interested in birds? You'll probably like H Is for Hawk. Are you not interested in birds? H Is for Hawk might make you look at them closely for the first time. Have you had a recent experience with grief? You may find that H Is for Hawk speaks to you. Have you been blessed to avoid the grief that is our inexorable lot? H Is for Hawk will likely speak to you as well.
If the title of Helen Macdonald’s memoir H Is for Hawk evokes a tidy, elementary school correspondence, don’t be fooled. Hawk is for everything. Not only does the creature Macdonald ties herself to in the wake of her father’s death come to represent the entire range of her grief, fury, and love, but it also stands for England, imagination, aristocracy, manhood, and T.H. White. It stands as well for the opposite of these. And then—while you are scrambling to grasp that T.H. White, beloved children’s author and broken sadist, is his own opposite—it shakes the symbolism from its feathers like rainwater ... Despite the contradictions and shape shifting that allow H Is for Hawk to elude domestication, it still feels wonderfully unified, weaving together biography, history, literary criticism, grief memoir, field guide. And ghost story.
MacDonald’s prose is breathtaking and graceful, enveloping readers in nature writing so beautiful that her words capture both the essence and depths of her emotions. H is for Hawk is a powerful memoir of loss and agony, while at the same time this genre-denying classic shares an uplifting portrait of both human and animal’s seemingly endless abilities for recovery and renewal.
H is for Hawk is not a mystical book, but it is one of those rare works of non-fiction that stand up to a metaphorical reading. The echoes of myth in Macdonald’s writing, however subtle and unobtrusive, lend her book an emotional weight usually reserved only for literature, and a grace only for poetry. But this is one of the book’s great achievements: to belong to several genres at once, and to succeed at all of them.
MacDonald’s memoir — an account of reckoning with grief in the wake her father’s death; also a close reading of T.H. White’s The Goshawk — is unusually layered and rich ... H Is for Hawk is about attention: about seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, crying, screaming, raging, shaking, and losing your shit as if it were happening all of it, now — it is, in short, quite deliberately about reckoning with the wild within as well as without, as each informs, mimics, and illuminates the other.
Macdonald's grief also threatens to detach her from solid ground, but not forever. Mabel cannot hunt year-round: after a bloody, lonely winter spent chasing rabbits and pheasants through the fields around Cambridge, Macdonald must let her rest during her spring molting season, and find her own way back to the tame, paved-over world. But her writing -- about soil and weather, myth and history, pain and its slow easing -- retains the qualities of Mabel's wild heart, and the commanding scope and piercing accuracy of her hawk's eye.
The compelling nucleus of H is for Hawk is made up of Macdonald’s often-inconsolable sadness, the portrait of anger over losing her father; the difficulty—and sometimes futility—of being an academic; and most of all the daunting challenge of raising and training a goshawk. When the author describes the natural landscape with precision of a great nature writer, the book positively soars ... Ultimately, H is for Hawk does become a tale of healing and redemption, and this probably accounts for its immense popularity. Yet it remains a singular and completely original document on grieving.