H Is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald

This is one of those books that defies quick categorization. You could call it a grief memoir or non-fiction nature writing, but it’s some of both and more than those too. At the root level, H Is for Hawk does center around the sudden death of Helen Macdonald’s father, and she expresses the devastation that follows that kind of sudden and expected loss in moving passages.

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense shining dullness of the space where memories are.

In her grief, she decides to adopt a goshawk — a particular type of hawk trained to be used for hunting. Macdonald has held an interest in falconry since she was young and has read every book she could find on the topic, so this isn’t an unusual step for her. But while she has trained other types of hawks, she has never trained a goshawk, which is considered to be one of the wildest birds and most difficult to train. Her depression becomes funneled into the bird she adopts, who she names Mabel — a purposefully agreeable name, as there is an ironic belief that hawks with vicious names don’t become good hunters.

While the theme of animal as healer is well-trod territory, H Is for Hawk is more Macdonald’s investigation into exactly why training a goshawk was what she was drawn to her in grief rather than a straightforward story of healing. In the midst of training, she reflects, “Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life.” She revisits much of the literature on goshawks (especially T. H. White’s book), seeking all the information she can find on these creatures. But in order to merge back into human life, she needs to dig deeper and determine what she mistakenly hopes the hawk can ultimately bring to her.