Blessed is the soul who, early in life, is gifted with a passionate interest in some art, craft, sport, pastime, or field of knowledge.  The object of passion might be well-nigh anything at all, so long of course as it is not vicious: stamp collecting or field hockey, cabinetry or the Civil War, boxing or bell ringing; in one case known to me personally, the hand-manufacture of antique chain mail.  Children used to be—perhaps still are—encouraged to take up a hobby in the hope of igniting some such spark in them; but my observation has been that the most intense attachments arise spontaneously, usually during the first decade of life.

British writer Helen Macdonald is one of those thus blessed.  By age six, she tells us, she was drawing a picture of a hawk sitting on a glove.  She became a keen falconer.  When the events in this book take place she is in her late 30’s, single, a lecturer (English, history of science) at a Cambridge college, and has “flown scores of hawks.”  Up to this point, though, she has never attempted what falconers consider to be one of the biggest challenges in their sport: training a goshawk for the hunt.  This particular bird of prey has a bad reputation.  “Goshawks are famously difficult to tame,” the author tells us.  They are, she further tells us, “nervous, highly-strung birds and it takes a long time to convince them you’re not the enemy.”

Macdonald acquires a goshawk and trains it—or rather, to use the proper term from the ancient and ample vocabulary of the sport, she mans it.  (And I had better note that in the fine distinctions of that vocabulary, falconers only train falcons.  A trainer of goshawks is properly called an austringer.)  That manning forms the main narrative thread of H Is for Hawk.  The author has thus set herself the task of communicating her own enthusiasm for falconry to readers who, in the overwhelming majority, know nothing at all about it.  This I think she has done very well, with some qualifications I shall record later.

Woven together with that thread are two others.  The second thread is grief, observed from the inside.

H Is for Hawk covers a span of a year, beginning just before the death of the author’s father on March 20, 2007.  The death was unexpected and sudden.  Its effect on Macdonald was to precipitate a nervous breakdown of the middling sort.  At times she was very distraught, indeed.  She experienced episodes of the derealization/depersonalization one finds in descriptions of the darker kind of mystical experience, or of the protagonist’s travails in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea.

Here she is, for example, standing in the grounds of her Cambridge college five months or so into her grief.

Sudden vertigo.  Something shifts in my head.  Something huge.  Then everything I see collapses into something else.  I blink.  It looks the same.  But it isn’t.  This is not my college.  Nothing about it feels familiar . . .

That is a few weeks after, in early August, Macdonald has purchased her goshawk, which she has named Mabel.  The manning has already begun.  It continues to the end of February the following year, when Mabel has to be placed in an aviary for the molting season—that is, to shed her feathers and grow new ones, a months-long process.

By that point it is clear that the manning of Mabel has been therapy for Macdonald’s grief.  At the end of the book, “in a contemplative mood,” the author regards the scars on her hands, some of which are from Mabel’s talons, others from pushing through hedgerows to retrieve the creature.  “And there were other scars, too, but they were not visible.  They were the ones she’d helped mend, not make.”

Successful as the therapy was, it is not clear that Macdonald’s decision to buy the goshawk was driven by therapeutic considerations, except perhaps at some level below the conscious.  This brings us to the third thread of this deftly woven narrative.

Four months after her father’s death Macdonald is rereading a book she has known since childhood.  Of the author of that book, she says, “My urge to train a hawk was for reasons that weren’t entirely my own.  Partly they were his.”

That book is The Goshawk, by T.H. White, published in 1951.  White (1906-64) was a cultivated but misanthropic Englishman: a schoolmaster, writer, and lover of field sports.  He is best remembered nowadays for his literary reworking of the Arthurian legends, The Once and Future King, which inspired the 1960 Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot, and thence a romantic myth about the Kennedy presidency (skillfully deconstructed in James Piereson’s 2007 book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution).

White’s book The Goshawk describes his own attempt, 70 years before Helen Macdonald’s, to man one of those birds.  It is a very odd book by an odd writer, and has a curious publishing history, described in Marie Winn’s Introduction to the New York Review Books’ 2007 reissue.  Macdonald gives us the necessary background on White and his book, then weaves her reflections on White’s efforts in with the narrative of her own.

Two tormented writers, a lifetime apart, trying to man two fractious birds: The story line is as audaciously duplicative as that of King Lear, in which the main plot of a foolish old man betrayed by his daughters is yoked to a subplot about a foolish old man betrayed by his son.  Shakespeare pulled it off somehow.  Does Macdonald?  In the matter of narrative construction, I think she does; and that is a small marvel in itself.  There are some other things to be mentioned, though—things that subtracted much from this reader’s pleasure.

First, H Is for Hawk is very much a woman’s book.  We read a great deal about the author’s mental states: moods, anxieties, feelings, memories of past feelings.  There are floods of tears: “I burst into tears”; “We clung to each other, crying for Dad”; “I notice tears running from my eyes”; “Water coursed in sheets down my cheeks”; “I start to sob.”  On at least five occasions the author even tells us about her dreams, apparently unaware that nothing in this world is less interesting than other people’s dreams.

I don’t know that this womanliness is really a fault in the book.  Certainly the publisher’s marketing department would not think so: Friends in the business have been grumbling to me for years that only women read books nowadays.  Three hundred pages of it are somewhat wearying to a male sensibility, that’s all.

More definitely indictable is the author’s prose style, which is overfond of periods.  White “wonders if this is the most important book he’s ever written.  Not because it will make his fortune.  But because it will save him.”

That should be one sentence, not three.  Whatever effect the author was striving for there escaped me.  She just makes herself sound like a breathless schoolgirl.

There are patches of embarrassingly purple prose, too.  At one point the sky contains “dinted pewter clouds.”  On a different occasion, “The sun had descended behind sheets of cinereal stratus to become a luminous disc glowing through talc-filled air . . . ”

I wish, too, that Macdonald had been less free with her political opinions, which are jejune.  She is what Britons call a Guardianista; which is to say, she takes her views unseasoned from Britain’s main left-liberal newspaper, the Guardian.  Probably she doesn’t even think of them as opinions, just as part of the structure of the universe, like the rules of arithmetic.  Doesn’t everyone think like this—everyone but crazy people?

Returned to the car park after a day in the field, she encounters a retired couple she has met before, “from my mother’s village.”  She exchanges pleasantries with them about a herd of deer they have all seen.  Then:

“Doesn’t it give you hope?” [the husband] says suddenly.


“Yes,” he says.  “Isn’t it a relief that there are things still like that, a real bit of Old England still left, despite all these immigrants coming in?”

I don’t know what to say.  His words hang and all the awkwardness is silence.

Macdonald walks away, fuming at the old boy’s resentment at having seen his beloved country—which likely his father, and perhaps he himself, fought and suffered for—swept away by floods of unassimilable and often hostile aliens.  In the following paragraph the name of Hermann Göring pops up.  (Not for the first time: Godwin’s Law actually kicked in 63 pages earlier.)

Later, as the author is inspecting plinths and statues in the landscaped gardens of a private school where White once taught, we get a shudder of ethnomasochism: “Here is the temple of British Worthies.  Look at them all.  Ugh.”  Ugh yourself, lady.  Those worthies built and maintained a nation that you Guardianistas are now giving away to barbarians.

Some of the fault undoubtedly lies with Macdonald’s education.  She took a paper on tragedy, she tells us, as part of her English degree.  This would have been in 1990, give or take a year.  “It was the Tragedy paper that led me to read Freud, because he was still fashionable back then.”  Say what?  I know from my own academic acquaintances that no one well read in the empirical human sciences took Freud seriously after 1970 at the latest.  You have an indictment of the modern humanities education right there.

I have now read three books about falconry, a sport I have never practiced.  H Is for Hawk is by far the most narratively imaginative.  I wish I could have liked it more.


[H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald (New York: Grove Press) 288 pp., $26.00]