H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Grove Press, 2014; 320 pp
Reviewed by Jack Hill
Like the goshawk, Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk is smart, beautiful, wild, and complex. H Is for Hawk is heavy with working gears and levers, delightfully difficult to define. It is in part a manual on falconry, a memoir about death, a craft meditation, a contextualized portrait of author T. H. White (The Sword in the Stone), a humanist manifesto, an exploration of how we treat animals, and a splendid piece of nature writing.
Readers might draw comparisons to writers such as Terry Tempest Williams (Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place) or Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams, Of Wolves and Men), but H Is for Hawk reads totally fresh due to the idiosyncratic way Macdonald shows the intersection of nature, art, and personal narrative. For instance, one afternoon Macdonald takes Mabel, her goshawk, to the walled garden of her college house and notes, “The air is thick with sun and dust and dandelion seeds. There's too much light, too much contrast. Too much noise and movement. I flinch at the hurry of it all. But the hawk? The hawk is unperturbed” (97). Then, Macdonald zooms in on Mabel, “in daylight her irises are flat and shiny and slightly blurred, with pupils that dilate and contract like a camera lens as she focuses – zip-zip-zip – up to track a passing Cessna – and then she turns her head upside down to watch a fly” (98). Going deeper, Macdonald writes:
The world she lives in is not mine. Life is faster for her; time runs slower. Her eyes can follow the wingbeats of a bee as easily as ours follow the wingbeats of a bird. [. . .] I have three different receptor-sensitivities in my eyes: red, green and blue. Hawks, like other birds, have four. This hawk can see colours I cannot, right into the ultraviolet spectrum. She can see polarised light, too, watch thermals of warm air rise, roil, and spill into clouds, and trace, too, the magnetic lines of force that stretch across the earth. The light falling into her deep black pupils is registered with such frightening precision that she can see with fierce clarity things I can't possibly resolve from the generalised blur. The claws on the toes of the house martins overhead. The veins on the wings of the white butterfly hunting its wavering course over the mustards at the end of the garden. (98)
Macdonald also has a knack for precise and textured prose, especially when it comes to verbs: “plonked” (25), “scurfed” (52), “scrunched” (170), “lopes” (232). Furthermore, Macdonald's relationship with Mabel is a reminder that we are a part of the natural world regardless of how hard we push for separation. Like the goshawk, we are animals, participants in a much larger system than ourselves. On the jacket, Kirkus Reviews is quoted as saying H Is for Hawk is “likely to become a classic.” H Is for Hawk definitely reads like an important classic, a compelling story, dense with ideas, that refuses to be put down.