In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald brings out the beauty and killing prowess of raptors used as hunting allies. She’s steeped in the ancient tradition of falconry, reduced, in our time, to a tiny, odd subculture. The hook for this book includes her selection of a notoriously temperamental goshawk to train instead of a comparatively easy species such as a peregrine falcon. She spends much time fretting over her hawk and frantically running after it, raising a gloved fist and blowing a whistle.
I should say her, not it: Macdonald’s goshawk is a girl. Endearingly dubbed Mabel, she is both gorgeous and a fierce avatar of death. So it’s all the more charming when Macdonald discovers that Mabel enjoys playing catch with crumpled paper wads. Mabel’s narrowed eyes mean mirth. But she’s a changeling. Triggered by sights and sounds, her quicksilver reactions—effectively her moods—are expressed in beating wings, biting beak, gripping talons.
H is for Hawk, the first memoir to win Britain’s Samuel Johnson Prize, is slow at first, and dense—this was my fresh-mind morning book for a good while before I adjusted to Macdonald’s rhythms. But heightened experiences appeal, and Macdonald evokes them in a narrative rife with savory juxtapositions. She braids three stories: taming and training the goshawk; coping with her father’s death and her disordered state; depicting novelist T.H. White’s own harrowing experience with a goshawk. White’s deeply damaged psyche and tormented life anger and chasten Macdonald in her mirroring pursuit.