By Cornelia Channing
British author Helen Macdonald’s 2015 release H Is For Hawk takes a genre-defying leap into the mind of a woman unhinged as she copes with the unexpected death of her father. Part field guide and part elegy, the memoir follows the grief-stricken author on her quest to tame a Northern Goshawk, a large and notoriously bad-tempered hunting bird. The book is a parable of loss but also of reckoning, of the things that we do to heal ourselves. Macdonald, who harnessed a lifelong fascination for birds of prey, throws herself into the deep end when she adopts a wild 10 week old hawk. She turns off her phone. She falls off the map. Her relationship with the bird, Mabel, is fraught and intimate, forcing her to grapple with her grief, to give it shape.
Sincere and scattered with salty British-isms, Macdonald’s writing is skin-pricklingly good. Her voice is familiar but unromantic. The book, to its credit, does not beg you to fall in love with its author—and yet you are on her side from the outset. Her descriptions are frequently compelling, but never more so than when they approach from the periphery. At one point, the author describes “The normal madnesses of grief” taking over her life. She dreams of hawks. She becomes impersonal, cruel, and obsessed with an animal that used to terrify her, “the birdwatcher’s dark grail.” Wherever she is writing from at the beginning of the book, it is a raw and ramshackle place. Every just-this-side of corny line feels like a skinned knee. Simultaneously conspicuous and hard to look at.
Though unafraid of platitudes, Macdonald somehow manages to escape the stickiness that so often takes over in stories of personal loss. In dealing with grief, many writers tend toward the narcissistic—too often choosing to exclude the world in a misguided attempt to forge intimacy with the reader. The result is claustrophobic, melodramatic prose. By balancing the heavy emotionality of personal tragedy and the technicalities of practicing falconry, the book achieves poignancy without getting bogged down in self-indulgence.
Very rarely does this book fulfill our expectations for a story about death. We do not watch as, page after page, sadness fades slowly into acceptance. Quite the contrary. Macdonald is inclined from the very start to throw herself up against her grief, to fight it and—eventually—to tame it. The word “cope,” which dates back to 14th Century Middle English, originally meant “to meet in battle, to come to blows.” Something in Macdonald’s writing tries to reclaim this earlier definition, treating the abstract and painful subject of death with an almost brutal literalness. Compared to other books of this genre, it is at once more interesting and less safe. In a blurb from the New York Times Book Review, Dwight Garner reflects: “Her book is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it. It draws blood, in ways that seem curative.”
Like the symbol of the hawk, feral and clawed, Macdonald’s writing doesn’t hold back. You are likely to come away with scratches, but—in my experience—they are totally worth it. What she offers in return is something to grab on to when thinking about death, an emotional anchoring hidden beneath a how-to guide for keeping dead animals in your freezer.
Consistently engrossing and periodically devastating, this book is one of the finest pieces of non-fiction I have read in the last year. Since it’s release, H Is For Hawk has received widespread acclaim, rising to the tops of bestseller’s lists and accruing an enviable number of prestigious awards.
H Is for Hawk
By Helen Macdonald
320 pp. Grove Press. $16.
Cornelia Channing is a member of the Wesleyan Class of 2016.