Tuesday, September 15, 2015

H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk is a book with an ending that the reader truly regrets.

Helen Macdonald's book has a good ending, don’t get me wrong. The conclusion is well-constructed, bittersweet, and possesses a definite point of change in the perspective. The ending is perfectly satisfying, just like the book itself, and yet I am not ready.

A poetically rendered memoir of a woman whose father has died suddenly, the book documents beautifully—and I mean beautifully—her struggle with this great loss. She fails to cope, and withdraws from her job, from most of her friends and family, and gives herself a noble excuse.

She will train a hawk.

Now, for most of us, this would be an outlandish venture. Not for Macdonald, who had been interested in falconry all her life and had even owned falcons herself. Falcons are rather “friendly”, trainable birds; in fact, for Macdonald, “my books all assured me that the peregrine falcon was the finest bird on earth.” Hawks, on the other hand, are “psychopaths”, “bloodthirsty” and have a tendency to become feral even after extensive training. In other words, hawks are a true challenge.

Macdonald knew this. At eight years old, she became acquainted with T.H. White’s The Goshawk, which outlines a spectacular, solitary failure to train a hawk. Even as a child, Macdonald could see the myriad mistakes White inflicted upon his poor hawk, and the book stayed with her as a wrong to be righted. Now was the time.

The presence of White reappears frequently throughout the book, as Macdonald purchases and begins to know her hawk. She is fascinated by the language of archaic romance that historical, and particularly male, austringers (the practitioners of falconry that specialize in hawks) use when referring to hawks. Hawks must be wooed and their “sulkiness” tolerated, "requiring more the Courtship of a Mistress than the Authority of a Master."

Macdonald’s bird, Mabel, becomes an excellently trained hawk, largely due to her owner’s single-minded patience and all-consuming devotion.  While getting to know each other, Macdonald and Mabel learn to play together—an aspect of hawking that was never addressed in any of Macdonald’s books. Even her “goshawk guru” Stuart had never heard of playing with your hawk. Macdonald finds herself in her own kind of romance with her hawk, and is desperately attracted to the wildness that remains in Mabel. Their relationship is a perfect kind of solitary escape.

Now it is apparent to the reader, with Macdonald’s hindsight, that this is not altogether healthy. But this is where the relationship between the reader and the writer tightens. Macdonald is fiercely solitary but we are at her side for the journey. We are her solace, we hear her loneliness. We become the family and friends to whom she is having difficulty reaching out.

This is why it is hard to let her go at the end of the book. She has shared so much with us and with such eloquence that it is almost like shutting a door on a friend. And it is Macdonald that shuts it, not us. Wistfully, I hope to read more by Helen Macdonald.

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