In his acclaimed book “Levels of Life” (2013), Julian Barnes “put together two things that have not been put together before” — namely the history of 19th-century Anglo-French ballooning and a dignified and deeply felt meditation on the death of his wife.
Helen Macdonald, a historian, naturalist and research scholar at the University of Cambridge, contrives an equally bizarre pairing in a just-as-remarkable book on the bereavement process. When her father dies suddenly on a London street, Macdonald, a lifelong bird lover, buys and raises a goshawk. “H Is for Hawk” is her account of how a fearsome bird of prey filled a gap in her life and became “a salve to my grieving heart.”
Macdonald tells several stories simultaneously. We get memories of her much missed father, a professional photographer who “stopped time by making pictures of the movings of the world.” As a boy he was an avid plane-spotter, a hobby his sky-gazing daughter can identify with. Milestones in her history rear up, starting with her obsession with birds from the age of 8, her desire at 12 to become a falconer and her life-altering pre-adolescent discovery of “The Sword and the Stone” author T.H. White’s chronicle “The Goshawk.”
These flashbacks intercut Macdonald’s main narrative strand in the present. We follow her as she forms a bond with goshawk Mabel — flying her in college grounds, teaching her to hunt in woods and over fenlands — all the time battling an encroaching and debilitating depression. The longer Macdonald spends with her hawk, the more she realizes she wants to be like one: “solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”
Macdonald’s memoir taps into White’s life story. Macdonald clearly recognizes a kindred spirit and consequently paints an affectionate portrait of a conflicted man whose main source of comfort was a hawk. 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. Mabel is “a being whose world is drawn in plots and vectors that pull her towards lives’ ends.” The book is packed with rich imagery of flora and fauna (“oxblood leaves like buffed pigskin”) and is sprinkled with delightfully arcane falconry terminology.
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.
“H Is for Hawk” has enchanted British readers and critics and was the worthy winner of the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize. Like its subject matter, this is a book that truly soars.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.