Book Review: H is for Hawk

BookReviewLogoReview by David Elkin

Essayist and historian Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk has been a remarkably and surprisingly popular book, and has earned accolades from critics, topping many “best of lists” in 2014. But it is substantially more difficult to describe what H is for Hawk is about.

18803640First and foremost, H is for Hawk is a memoir of loss, as MacDonald mourns her beloved father. Seeking an outlet for her grief, and pursuing a long-held interest in falconry, MacDonald procures a goshawk for training. The challenges of understanding her hawk, and the growing bond between the grieving woman and the raptor becomes the most affecting part of the book.

As her grief deepens, MacDonald pulls away from the world of human connection and immerses herself in her growing bond with her hawk, Mabel, and the immediacy and ferocity of her hawk’s existence. MacDonald details her doubts about training Mabel, and her growing sense of competency in guiding her raptor not just to follow commands but to bond with her. Mabel’s feral nature is offset by her trust in MacDonald; a scene in which the two play catch with crumpled paper and engage in other forms of play is especially intimate and charming. But Mabel is a hunter, and MacDonald’s sojourns with her hawk bring her into contact not only with pastoral settings of England, but the life and death struggles that characterize nature in the wild.

MacDonald’s return to the land of the living, and the promise of human connection, is detailed and well-earned. Her journey through her grief is deep and the reader can sense the re-ordering of her understanding of mortality and the reality of existence.

MacDonald intersperses her own account of falconry with the experiences of T.H. White. White is probably familiar to audiences as the author of The Once and Future King, but he also wrote a lesser-known work, The Goshawk. White, a closeted gay man in the repressive culture of England in the early 20th century, led a highly constrained life. Deprived of models or outlets for intimacy and love, his relationship with his hawk, Gos, is similarly distorted, tragic,  and doomed to misunderstanding and failure. The seeds of the tragedy of White’s life lies in his lack of wisdom and self-understanding, and MacDonald’s skillful and non-judgmental portrayal is of a life only partially lived, blocked from passion and devoid of connection.

MacDonald’s considerable skills as a writer are a major part of the appeal of her book. In the hands of a less adept writer, the strands that comprise H is for Hawk would have sheared apart. Instead, in MacDonald’s capable hands, these parts coexist and amplify each other. By turns precise, spare, raw, and poetic, her voice is clear and immediate. Although I’ve listened to H is for Hawk as an audiobook, I find MacDonald’s presence correspondingly and remarkably clear on the pages of her book.

Like others, I read for the pleasure of immersing myself in the lives and perspectives of others, and the chance to come away with a different view of the world. In these respects H is for Hawk succeeds admirably. MacDonald has given us a clearer view of the depths of bereavement and loss, as well as the wonder of the natural world in which we all exist. Beauty and connection co-exist with loss and death in an ecological web that connects and sustains us all. In contrast to T.H. White, MacDonald returns to the world richer in understanding and compassion for herself and others. H is for Hawk is a poignant and fierce reminder of what it means to be alive, to confront mortality. We grieve the loss of those around us, but continue to yearn for hope and solace, to reaffirm our relationships with people and the greater natural world that sustains us.  I feel richer for reading this book, and have recommended it widely to friends and colleagues.

David Elkin, MD, MSL, is Professor of Psychiatry, SF General Hospital and UCSF, especially interested in undergraduate and medical education, medical humanities, intersection of law, ethics, medicine and mental health, and neuroethics.

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