H Is for Hawk and Helluva Book

Okay, so it's on bestseller lists. It has won prizes. But that's not why you should read it. Yes, it's about a hawk, and about the author, a falconer. It's also about mourning. It's beautifully written: three hankies for emotion, at least. Applause—no, a standing ovation—for the prose and rhythm. This is H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

It's autobiographical, nonfiction, but unfolds the way a good story does, capturing and enrapturing. It's autobiographical, but it is connected to the larger world; along with Macdonald's life, we experience the life of T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King and The Goshawk, among others, and we glimpse the 1970s television version of John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as well as other British cultural references and history. "It is not a biography of Terence Handbury White. But White is part of my story all the same. I have to write about him because he was there" (Ch. 4).

Experience is really what the book provides. Macdonald does not tell you in advance what will happen and why, she does not tell you how to feel; as you read you simply feel you are in the moment, experiencing the places, thoughts, feelings, memories and events as she does. Miraculously, the book seems free of judgments. You are there to sort it out for yourself.

It connects to art as well as to life, and she could be talking about art materials and found objects in a section in Chapter 12. She writes, thinking about her hawk, "I once asked my friends if they'd ever held things that gave them a spooky sense of history…Everyone agreed that what these small things did was strangely intimate; they gave them the sense, as they picked them up and turned them in their fingers, of another person, an unknown person a long time ago, who held that object in their hands." Through her words, Macdonald's book gives you that intimate connection with birds, and with everyone who has mourned a loss, including Macdonald herself. "It's like all the years between you and them disappear. Like you become them somehow." (Related post about materials is here.)

While I was reading the book (which I wished were paper, but it was not; we were traveling) we visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York, our first time. There, we were confronted by, among other things, a hall of taxidermied birds. The book excited me, made me want to find the bird, see just how big it was, what its colors were. I was not disappointed; they have a stuffed goshawk there with a "cafĂ©-au-lait front streaked thickly with cocoa-coloured teardrops" (Ch. 7). Although I am a vegetarian, I was still happy to see the goshawk in the display of dead birds. It made the book even more real, I thought. The bird in the book that much more alive.

Or did it? My feeling at seeing the stuffed goshawk ties into an art exhibit Macdonald describes later, in Chapter 19, of "a full-sized bird hide…an exact copy of a real structure in California." In her case though, she finds it "as disconcerting as opening a fridge door and finding a house within," because inside the structure is a window to a video of a condor flying in California. The stuffed goshawk helped to ground me and my imagination and gave me a tangible clue to size and shape and color. But Macdonald has seen condors, she knows them. She continues, "The condor on the gallery screen was nothing like them…" and "Eventually rarity is all they are made of…It is a shadow, a figure of loss and hope; it is hardly a bird at all."

She questions the piece, then realizes it is not meant to be real or a substitute for reality: the condor in this work of art, like in many works of art, is a symbol, a metaphor for the changing landscape around us. One can also look at the passage as a metaphor for memory. Particularly memories of the father she has lost. The video is not the bird. The photograph is not the person, the belongings of the person are not the person. The stuffed hawk is not the hawk. It has none of the character or abilities of the actual bird.

Which, she realizes, "is the whole point of this exhibition." And, I would add, is the whole point of the book. The book is a space to feel another person, become another person, and feel your own feelings and make your own connections in the process. A beautiful work of art.

Goshawk in the collection of 
the American Natural History Museum