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Review: The Angry Bird of H Is for Hawk

Mar 12, 2015

A Goshawk is a bird of prey. Largeish--19 to 24 inches--but hard to spot in the wilderness. "Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace," Helen Macdonald writes in her extraordinary memoir H Is for Hawk. "It comes, but not often, and you don't get to say when or how."

Macdonald found her goshawk the old-fashioned way: she ordered her online, from a hawk breeder in Northern Ireland. H Is for Hawk is Macdonald's indelible account of her experiences training the bird. Her reasons for undertaking this task are at first a little obscure. She had extensive experience as a falconer, but she'd never trained a goshawk before because they have a bad reputation: moody, sulky, vicious. "They unnerved me," she writes. "They were things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets." But after her father, a news photographer, died suddenly, Macdonald found herself feeling a bit goshawkish herself. She suddenly felt drawn to death and difficulty.

Macdonald's first sight of her bird, when the breeder lifts her out of the cardboard box she travels in, is one of the most memorable passages I've read this year, or for that matter this decade. The heat of the moment is enough to melt grammar:

The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it's all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury.

Macdonald took her hawk home, named her Mabel and began the slow, agonizing process of gaining her trust and habituating her to human company and the feel of a leather fist under her talons. Macdonald spent whole days and nights with her bird, shunning friends, neglecting her career, becoming more hawk than human. Everything about the hawk-trainer dyad is intense: falconry even has its own language, as if it were a foreign country in its own right. "Wings were sails, claws pounces, tail a train," Macdonald writes. "Hawks don't wipe their beaks, they feak. When they defecate they mute. When they shake themselves they rouse." Mabel is described so vividly that she becomes almost physically present on the page, down to the smell of her hawk breath: "pepper and musk and burned stone."

Macdonald frames her book in part as a dialogue with a similar memoir, The Goshawk, by T.H. White, who's best known for his Arthurian epic The Once and Future King. Macdonald is every bit his equal as a writer (as a falconer she's much better), and thinking about White is a roundabout way for her to look at her own motivations for training Mabel in the wake of her father's death, which aren't simple. "The hawk was everything I wanted to be," she writes early on. "Solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life."

But the bond between hawk and falconer (technically the trainer of a goshawk is an austringer) is fraught with paradox, and one is that the austere, aloof goshawk teaches Macdonald how to feel again. "You feel more human," she writes, "once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not." Macdonald is looking for the goshawk within herself, and for her finding that elusive bird and finding grace become one and the same.

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