Helen Macdonald, a historian and naturalist, was nearing the end of a three-year stint at the University of Cambridge when her father died. Abruptly and completely untethered — “[t]here was no partner, no children, no home.
No nine-to-five job” — Macdonald clutched at her love of falconry in an attempt to alleviate her grief, challenging herself to train a goshawk, the “ruffians” of birds of prey, “murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, factious . . . wild and spooky and reptilian.”
By the time she was 6, Macdonald was mesmerized by the world of birds. She had pictures of raptors on her bedroom wall, doodled hawks on the margins of her school exercise books, attempted to sleep with her arms folded, winglike, behind her back, and greedily gobbled up falconry’s vocabulary, “a dizzying panoply of terms of precision . . . [a] perfect, secret language.”
In many ways, immersing herself in her lifelong obsession ensured Macdonald’s certain return to a long-nurtured comfort zone: From the moment she meets Mabel — as she names her goshawk — she is intractably drawn to the bird’s wildness, playfulness, and self-containment. “For the first time in months my life had a purpose,” she writes. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”
With a writer-magician’s deft hand, Macdonald weaves the highly specific worlds of historical and contemporary falconry — hunting, feeding habits, accoutrements and all, including an introduction to the Prada shoe of hawk hoods — seamlessly together with a haunting memoir of mourning. But, as with the finest of magicians, there’s an extra trick up her sleeve: Woven through the book, too, is Macdonald’s appreciative reading of “The Goshawk,” a 1951 hawk-training memoir by fellow falconer and “Once and Future King” author T. H. White.
For much of her book, Macdonald is out and about in the wilds of the English countryside, and she’s got a lovely, nuanced feel for the landscape, drenched as it is in history, mystery, and beauty. She brings the natural world to vivid life, whether describing “a ramshackle wildness in which people and the land have conspired to strangeness” or “a forest washed pewter with frost.” The characteristics of reindeer moss are rendered with scientific precision as “tiny stars and florets and inklings of an ancient flora. . . . Crisp underfoot in summer, the stuff is like a patch of the arctic fallen into the world in the wrong place.” And then there are portraits of nature in action: “Small birds rose up in clouds from the pond’s edge: chaffinches, bramblings, a flock of long-tailed tits that caught in willow branches like animated cotton buds.”
Altogether, Macdonald is terrific with words, delivering half-sentence zingers as gracefully as extended scenes with precision and humor. She dubs one terrifying goshawk a “madwoman in the attack,” and there’s a breathtaking description of the ways in which a hawk’s vision is far richer than a human’s. There’s the lighthearted moment when Macdonald serenades Mabel with “My Favorite Things” and a laid-back social session with fellow hawkers at a small country fair that’s relaxing, amusing, and entertaining.
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.” While there’s an awakening for Macdonald at her father’s memorial, an occasion that brings home the realization that “[h]ands are for other human hands to hold,” it’s clear, all along, that it required her journey with Mabel to get there.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.