Sunday, September 13, 2015

Staff Review: H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald is one intense book: grief-intensive, nature-intensive, language-intensive, and raptor-intensive, just for starters. Its genesis was the unexpected death of the author's father, a vibrant newspaper photographer with whom MacDonald shared a close and sympathetic relationship all her life. Indeed he sounds like an exceptional dad. MacDonald learned to love nature right by his side and accompanied him on expeditions, such as his personal project to photograph every bridge over the River Thames. Receiving news one day of his sudden death by heart attack, MacDonald is devastated. She doesn't recover for months.

For at that point in her life, she feels she has nothing: no partner, no kids, no permanent job, no house.  She's winding up a fellowship and will soon be jobless and homeless (in the less urgent sense of the latter term). MacDonald is no ordinary woman though: she is a writer, poet, naturalist, historian, research scholar, and falconer, falconry having been a mad passion since childhood.

In an attempt to deal with her overwhelming grief, MacDonald acquires a hawk -- and not just any hawk, but a goshawk, notoriously the most difficult and murderous of raptors -- and raises Mabel the Hawk to be her wild companion. Her narrative of their time together is interspersed with memories of her father and with a biographical sketch of the writer T. H. White, a tortured man, avid falconer, and author of The Once and Future King, a series of books about King Arthur. H Is for Hawk moves back and forth between MacDonald's life and White's, the two linked by their love of hawks and their hope for healing through their birds. The extensive White passages may wear on some readers.

The story of MacDonald's training of Mabel is compelling; the author becomes almost feral herself in her attempt to drown her grief in the hawk's wildness. MacDonald's writing is dazzling: unbelievable, really, the freshest, most original I've encountered in ages. Reading the book you feel the author has never met a cliché, never witnessed anything through any eyes but her own.

H Is for Hawk won the Costa Book Award for 2014 (formerly known as the Whitbread Prize, with a £30,000 purse) and the Samuel Johnson Prize (worth  £20,000) for nonfiction. The awards are well-deserved but the author's intensity began to wear on me just a bit by the end, as did the murderous intent of Mabel, whose blood-lust the author often seemed to share.

For MacDonald's a rare poet-scholar, one who doesn't have a problem snaking her hands down the rabbit hole Mabel's legs have penetrated, grabbing the frantic rabbit ensnared by sharp talons, and snapping its neck. It's a merciful act, but I found myself appalled that MacDonald could do it. Her intensity has created a rare book though, even if by its final pages I was ready to head my own less-intense way.

~Ann, Adult Services

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