Helen Macdonald's father died suddenly, of a heart attack, along the Thames while taking photographs. He was a photographer. It was his job to photograph things, to notice and capture them; and it's a similar talent that Macdonald exhibits in this finely noticed account of grief and loss. Macdonald is a Cambridge academic and an amateur falconer (are there professional ones?) and the way she copes, or attempts to cope, with her father's death is through the challenge of training a goshawk, a bird known to be notoriously bloodthirsty and difficult.
What does the hawk, named Mabel, have to do with the father? That's not an easy question to answer, because H is for Hawk gives a picture of Helen in the process of figuring out her own motives and motivations. She offers up several explanations for what she's trying to accomplish with Mabel, and rejects some and modifies others. At the same time she presents a reading of T. H. White's The Goshawk, a book written about the closeted man's attempts to do the same thing while drastically underinformed and underprepared. Her analysis of White is as lucid and thoughtful as you might expect from a literary critic, but it's hard to shake the feeling sometimes that White's presence in the text makes one dead man too many.
I say that not to criticize, but to ponder the way that H is for Hawk captures the essential messiness of grief, the alienation it provokes from one's own feelings and thoughts. H is for Hawk can be all over the place, but that doesn't feel wrong, and it's kept together by the strong throughline of the narrative--woman trains hawk--and the unfussy beauty of the prose, evidence of Macdonald's other career is a poet.
Few other books capture the feeling of bereavement so well. "The memories," she writes, "are like heavy blocks of glass. I can put them down in different places but they don't make a story." She says she's been crashing her father's car, scraping it against walls. Is it because she's trying to punish her absent father? No, she says--it's that she no longer understands the shape of the car. She writes with a chill:
There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are there no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining fullness of the space where the memories are.
In some respect, Mabel is something to throw herself into, a distraction. In another, she's a familiar kind of figure: a female companion who helps the traumatized protagonist heal through her companionship. (Reading the old 19th-century accounts of falconers who excoriated goshawks, she recognizes the male tropes of sulkiness and mysteriousness that get applied to women.) In another, she's a metaphor, the father who is lost among the clouds, but who will return at the call of a whistle as trained. And perhaps not least she is an escape, a running from the world of men and women into a closed society of woman and hawk that occludes healing as much as it fosters it:
"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.
She likes that line so much--"hands are for other human hands to hold"--that she repeats it at least once. It has the pithiness of an aphorism, or a bromide, but Macdonald has earned it. The novel ends with Mabel placed in an aviary, where she will moult for the summer, and Helen distraught, a repetition on a smaller scale of the mechanics of loss. But it's tempered by the suggestion that Helen will return to friendships and to human life. It's a vision of healing that is honest, and never too pat or neat.
To be honest, I wasn't sure they wrote books like this anymore, much less turned them into bestsellers. There's an Oxbridge fussiness to it, a Victorian solipsism borrowed from White and other falconers that Macdonald reads about. (And despite Macdonald's insistence that austringers, hawk-trainers, are thought of as a lower breed than genteel falconers, it's hard for this American to see the pastime as anything but tweedy.) But its beauty and honesty make it a book out of its own time, and one I'm grateful to have read.