Monday, August 10, 2015

Review: "H Is For Hawk" by Helen Macdonald

The sudden death of her father shatters Helen Macdonald. Aching and angry, she throws herself into a new project that will occupy the empty place in her heart: the training of a young goshawk.

Since her earliest memories, she has been captivated by birds of prey. But the small raptors she has worked with in the past are nothing compared to either the enormity or the single-minded ferocity of the goshawk. Macdonald's bird, named "Mabel," does not require training so much as the complete sublimation of self. Soon Macdonald, rather than recovering from her loss, withdraws from human company altogether--much to the dismay of her friends and family.

Macdonald contrasts her experience with Mabel against that of T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King, who also sought to expunge his human agonies by hawking. Memories of her father merge with White's unsettling memoirs as Macdonald seeks to make amends.


H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)
3.5 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 3/5
Logic of Plot Development: 3/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Memorability: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: animal abuse, child abuse, homophobia, self-harm
Overall Response: Beautiful, even if I wanted more.


More ThoughtsH Is For Hawk has been winning awards left and right since its release last summer. Fittingly, the number of "holds" on the book at my local library is well into the double digits. I waited months to get my hands on it. Now, my challenge: to finish writing this review in time to return the book before the library closes today, at which point, the Book Police will no doubt beat down my door and confiscate it.

Macdonald's memoir has three strong hooks. It is universally personal: each of us has suffered (or will, eventually, suffer) the death of a loved one. It is, at the same time, wholly unique: everyone has been inspired by some rare creature or another, but few of us ever have the chance to bond personally with the object of our admiration, as Macdonald does with her goshawk. Lastly, Macdonald's study of T.H. White offers an uncommon view of a famous figure's private struggles.

H Is For Hawk will leave the reader unsettled, with more questions than answers and a certain distress of the heart which Macdonald's conclusions fail to soothe. This is not to say that the book is anything but lovely.
I'd thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I'd read told me so. So many of them had been quests inspired by grief or sadness. Some had fixed themselves to the stars of elusive animals. Some sought snow geese. Others snow leopards. Others cleaved to the earth, walked trails, mountains, coasts and glens. Some sought wildness at a distance, others closer to home. "Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions," wrote John Muir. "Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal."

Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.
The book is not without moments of humor, usually of the surreal sort, as Macdonald learns to see her world with a hawk's eyes. (The passage where she describes the increasing droves of twilight joggers in the same terms as bats leaving their roost, for example.) But largely it is a book about pain and a book of pain: hers, White's, their respective hawks', the prey animals whose lives are forfeit.

As engaging as it is to read about Macdonald's bond with Mabel, the sections of the book dealing with White are so agonizing as to be nearly repellent. One certainly comes away from H Is For Hawk with a greater understanding of the novelist. The cruelty with which he handles his own hawk--sometimes accidentally, through ignorance, but sometimes deliberately--is hard to stomach. It clarifies questions about White's inspiration for The Once and Future King, but at the cost of the reader's trust.

What staggers me is how narrowly Macdonald applies the lens of White's personal hawking experiences to view his work. She focuses solely on the first section, The Sword in the Stone. Of course there is rich material for discussion there, what with the young Wart being turned into a hawk at one point--a passage which Macdonald uses to discuss the roles of student and teacher, sadist and sufferer. In a different section, White's misunderstanding of the medieval rite of passage that was "keeping vigil" becomes the bones for my favorite scene in the entire epic: Wart's prayer during his own vigil (a page I've marked with red marker for easy finding in my personal copy)

But Macdonald entirely overlooks the significance of the rest of The Once and Future King. White, a sadist, wrote about a Lancelot who is kind precisely because he understands the depth of cruelty within himself, who first pays attention to Guenever because he has caused her pain, while out hawking. One could compose entire theses on the subject. Macdonald's view of the Wart and Merlyn as White's efforts to redeem his failures as both austringer and teacher is fascinating. But one would expect her to cast an eye toward White's ill-made knight at some point.

Fortunately, explorations of White's inside world flavor rather than overwhelm Macdonald's own narrative. If one writer sought a goshawk to externalize his own viciousness, the other found in her hawk the consolation of immediacy. "The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away," Macdonald writes. "There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge." The memoir is more than an ordinary retelling of hobby-as-distraction, but a thesis on self.

Macdonald's memoir is rich with insight into the grieving process, prolonged depression, and avoidance. The reader will come away impressed (in the classic sense of "stamped") with her thoughts.

There--now off to the library!

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