Saturday, March 7, 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

ISBN: 978-0-670-06955-2

Where to begin...

It has been some time since, while reading a book, I have wondered: is this the best book I have ever read? It certainly has never happened with a work of non-fiction. I guess there really is a first time for everything.

H is for Hawk is a masterpiece. There, I said it. Now I can get on with it.

A passing in the family is never easy--especially when it is a parent that you looked up to. Fortunately, I haven't yet had to cope with such a loss and I'm obviously not looking forward to the day that I will. When Helen Macdonald's father died, she essentially lost a part of her. In H is for Hawk, she tries to find a way to get it back.

Macdonald's primary interest has been in falconry since she was a child. She has trained hawks before, but never a goshawk: widely known as the most erratic, blood-thirsty species. And so she buys one and names her Mabel. She puts everything aside--she becomes a bit of a recluse, she turns down a teaching job in Germany--all to commit herself entirely to training her hawk.

I had to laugh when she described the distraction of passing people on the streets. As she is trying to get Mabel to focus, people stop and stare in amazement. She wishes they would all just disappear. I have felt the exact same way when walking my puppy. Obviously a puppy and a goshawk are not the same at all. It's just very frustrating to get an animal to do what you want it to without anyone around, let alone with. The rational emotion is not anger, though, and that is the one that Macdonald and I shared. 

I don't know anything about falconry. To be completely honest, before I read this book, I didn't know it still existed. Being a vegetarian, it isn't something that I have an interest in doing--especially after reading Macdonald's description of Mabel's prey's last moments on Earth. But the training of this wild bird--the steps Macdonald has to take to ostensibly make the goshawk an extension of herself--is compelling to say the least. Mabel becomes her "spirit animal": she mentions Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials and how the children in the series have "daemons" and likens it to her own situation with Mabel.

She also finds a parralel with TH White, the author of the Arthurian epic The Once and Future King. White also became an austringer (albeit an unsuccessful one) and wrote about it in The Goshawk. White was a very sad--bordering on pathetic--character. He was gay in a time that it really wasn't accepted and was struggling to fit in. He did his best to find an "appropriate" love, but when he couldn't, embarked on the training of a goshawk. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to and ended up losing his bird, Gos. 

Macdonald did not want to have a similar fate. Although she had more experience than White, there was always the possibility that Mabel would just fly away. Being in a very sensitive state, that is not something that she thought she could handle.

Helen Macdonald is a wonderful writer: it's hard to find flaws in her prose. Her accounts of White are written in an omniscient third-person narration that read the same as a narration of a novel. It is unique. Really good stuff.

H is for Hawk is an honest account of a terrible time in someone's life and of how they pick up the pieces. The author, thankfully, gives the reader a window into her mind when she was struggling and shows how she overcame it with a predatory bird on her fist.

I'm so glad I read this book and I recommend that everyone does the same: no matter what your general interest, I'm sure you'll be able to find something in it that captivates you. There's just so much to it--I can't say enough good things. 

Must-read. So go read it.

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