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Review: 'H Is for Hawk' a soaring memoir of loss, love and wildness

Published Mar. 25, 2015

In many cultures across the centuries, Helen Macdonald tells us, hawks and falcons have been seen as messengers between two worlds: the world of the living and that of the dead.

A raptor serves just such a purpose in Macdonald's stunning memoir, H Is for Hawk. In it, she tells the riveting story of how she coped with the sudden death of her beloved father: by immersing herself in the long and difficult process of training a goshawk, one of the largest and fiercest birds of prey used in falconry.

It's a most unlikely form of grief therapy, but it comes naturally to Macdonald. As a child growing up in England, she had read books about falconry and been seized by the desire to learn it herself. Her obliging parents took her to a competition, and a lifelong passion was born. As an adult, she trained and hunted with a number of birds as well as working with raptor conservancy programs around the globe.

A writer, naturalist, historian and research scholar, Macdonald teaches at Cambridge University. She brings to H Is for Hawk a wide-ranging, ruthless intelligence that keeps this memoir of loss from ever seeming sentimental or mawkish. It is instead as keen and beautiful as the bird it revolves around, although finally deeply human.

Macdonald recounts with painful clarity the terrible disorientation she feels when her father, a successful photojournalist, drops dead on a London street. Casting about for solace, she decides to acquire a young goshawk, recalling for the reader the first time she saw a bird of that breed up close: "Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thundercloud. She completely filled the room. She had a massive back of sun-bleached grey feathers, was as muscled as a pit bull, and intimidating as hell, even to staff who spent their days tending eagles. So wild and spooky and reptilian."

The key word there is "wild." What Macdonald seeks from the bird she trains is an escape from human emotion into that wildness, and she finds it — and almost loses herself in it.

Her first reaction to her own goshawk, which she names Mabel, is more lyrical than fearful: "She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water." The training process, called "manning," will bond them tightly as they spend almost every hour of the day together.

As Mabel becomes an obsession for Macdonald, so does someone else: the writer T.H. White. To modern readers, White is known, if at all, as the author of several Arthurian epics, including The Sword in the Stone, which became a Disney film, and The Once and Future King, which became the musical Camelot.

White, who died in 1964, also wrote a book called The Goshawk. It was one of the books that fired the young Macdonald's interest in falconry, but she reads it very differently now. In his private life, White was a deeply closeted homosexual whose fantasies of sadistic sex, born of a childhood filled with horrifying abuse, tortured him with shame. "Like White," Macdonald writes, "I wanted to cut loose from the world, and I shared, too, his desire to escape to the wild, a desire that can rip away all human softness and leave you stranded in a world of savage, courteous despair."

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How Macdonald makes that escape to the wild, and returns from it, is an engrossing story filled with surprises. It also incorporates a history of falconry as well as grappling with the moral implications of the sport — her beloved birds are, Macdonald concedes, exquisitely honed death machines as well as undomesticated creatures whose lives in human hands can never be natural.

But Macdonald wears her erudition lightly, and it always illuminates the story she tells. Mabel is a metaphor for many things, not least for human love and loss. The entire goal of the training process is the day Macdonald will loose the bird from its bonds, let it fly free — and pray it will come back to her hand.

But Mabel is more than a literary device. She is an irresistible, indelible character as well: "Every tiny part of her was boiling with life, as if from a distance you could see a plume of steam around her, coiling and ascending, and making everything around her slightly blurred, so she stood out in fierce, corporeal detail. ... My flight from death was on her barred and beating wings."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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