H is For Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

By the time I received the library notification, I’d forgotten why I’d ordered this book (in case you don’t know me, this says more about me than the library). In a sense, this was a gift, because I got to open this book without any expectations.   So I was completely undone by the by the author’s words and how they went straight to the tender places in my life.

H is for Hawk is several stories: a memoir of a woman grieving the sudden loss of her father; a naturalist’s account of the relationship of a woman and a goshawk; and a sort of biography of the novelist TH White and his attempts at training a hawk, which was also memorialized in book form.

Just for its account of grief, H is for Hawk is worth reading. I haven’t read such an attentive account of loss and what it does to us since I picked up C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. But this book is more than the sum of its parts. All three stories resonate and reverberate with one another, creating an account of a psychological and spiritual journey told entirely in secular language. It is an exploration of the relationships between people and between people and animals, how we are driven by the forces at play in our lives, and what we do with our pain and suffering.

This is a memoir, but I keep calling it a novel, because it is so well written. It doesn’t so much cross boundaries of genres so much as it completely ignores them.   It reads like a story and at its heart it has both small t facts and the big T truths about life found in great literature. I found myself at once racing along and not wanting it to end, as Macdonald’s writing stirred up my own memories of the people and animals I have loved and lost.

On top of it all, I am impressed by Macdonald’s willingness to show us her humanness, her animal self. Here is a person who is not embarrassed to live through her own obsessions. Not all of us take on such an all-consuming project as the training of a goshawk. But many of us, I suspect, have our own passions, secret or not, separate from work or family, where we live out the events of our psyches. Each of us has our own peculiar mix of necessity and circumstances, and yet, Macdonald reminds us, amid the particulars, there are commonalities in the human journey.

Amen is all I can say. And thank you, Helen Macdonald. My world is a bigger place for your book.

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