Helen Macdonald’s memoir is a fierce and beautifully crafted account of her attempt to mourn her father by training a wild and dangerous goshawk. MacDonald appears April 16 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.
‘H is for Hawk’
by Helen Macdonald
Grove Press, 300 pp., $25
Grief and depression usually subside with time, counseling, new relationships, medication or change of scene. British writer and historian Helen Macdonald treated the despair that followed her father’s sudden death in a rather different way. She acquired an elegant, deadly goshawk and, over a period of often excruciating months, trained the raptor to fly over England’s green and pleasant countryside. “H is for Hawk” is the unsparing, fierce, beautifully crafted memoir of Macdonald’s passage through this dark time.
Alisdair Macdonald, one of Britain’s top photojournalists, was the perfect parent for a free-spirited little girl who harbored a precocious obsession with falconry. His death of a heart attack at the age of 67 left Helen with a “quiet, and very, very dangerous” kind of madness. (The nature of the danger — suicide? uncontrollable rage? debilitating indifference? — is never stated.)
In the depths of grief, she returned to a book that had entranced and disturbed her as a child — “The Goshawk,” an account of a doomed attempt to train a goshawk that British writer T.H. White penned before “The Once and Future King” made him famous. White’s quest for mastery over both his bird and his demons became a touchstone for Macdonald as she embarked on her own mad, maddening love affair with the bird she christened Mabel.
The author of “H is for Hawk” will appear at 7 p.m. April 16 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Free (206-366-3333; thirdplacebooks.com).
“She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel,” Macdonald writes of her first, breathless impression. “Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.” For weeks the bird is crazed with rage and fear, and Macdonald herself becomes manic in her fixation to execute the perfect training regimen.
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But step by step, hawk and person learn to trust each other — and when the day comes that Mabel is finally ready to fly free outside, Macdonald is at once exhilarated and paralyzed: “Flying a hawk free is … not a thing that’s easy to do when you’ve lost trust in the world, and your heart is turned to dust.”
Deep in the book, there comes a moment when Macdonald perceives with a shiver how tightly she is fused with this gorgeous, feral slayer of fuzzy creatures. “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human,” she confesses. “Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all.”
But she returns to the fold stronger, sadder, stripped of illusions, expert at the strange mission she has assigned herself. Healing is a rather pallid word for the reckoning with terror and ecstasy that Mabel allows Macdonald to access.
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.
There is no sex in this memoir, but there is most decidedly passion. When, toward the end of the book, Macdonald stupidly risks losing Mabel on a free flight, I found myself silently screaming, “How could you — after what you’ve been through?” But when I turned the last page, I understood. Without risk there is no wildness; without freedom, love cannot soar.
With the lightest touch and an instinct for the music in language, Helen Macdonald has hauled something precious and wise from the depths of despair.