I’ve been having trouble thinking about how to tell you about H is for Hawk. It’s a difficult book to describe, because it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever read. (It can be done though, because Kathryn Schulz’s review of it in the New Yorker is fantastic.)
Let’s start with an oversimplified list of the main topics:
- Helen Macdonald’s grief and depression over her father’s sudden death.
- Her decision to buy and tame a Goshawk.
- The writer T. H. White: his life, his struggles, and his book The Goshawk.
If you read that list and think it sounds like an unlikely recipe for a NY Times bestseller, I agree. I think Helen Macdonald herself would probably agree. That’s what makes the book so special, I suppose: it’s unusual and it’s masterful.
It joins Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking as an stunning work of literature that describes a writer’s experience with grief. But it’s so much more than that as well – it’s a meditation on our relationship with nature and the wild, our connection with writers through the books we read, and the essence of humanity.
It’s interesting, beautifully written, and philosophical. It’s a stunning book.
My favorite passages:
“He explained patience. He said it was the most important thing of all to remember, this: that when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it, and be patient.” (page 10)
“You must become invisible. Imagine: you’re in a darkened room. You are sitting with a hawk on your fist. She is as immobile, as tense and sprung as a catapult at full stretch. Underneath her huge, thorny feet is a chunk of raw steak. You’re trying to get her to look at the steak, not at you, because you know — though you haven’t looked — that her eyes are fixed in horror at your profile. All you can hear is the wet click, click, click of her blinking.” (page 67)
“We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost.” (page 129)
“And I’d see the hawk crouch and fly. I’d see her drop from the perch, speed towards me, and my heart would be in my mouth. Though she was still on the creance, I feared the faltering. I feared the veering off, the sudden fright, the hawk flying away. But the beating wings brought her straight to me, and the thump of her gripping talons on the glove was a miracle. It was always a miracle. I choose to be here, it meant. I eschew the air, the woods, the fields. There was nothing that was such as salve to my grieving heart as the hawk returning.” (page 134-135)
“It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion; that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them — that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me.” (page 151)
“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 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 dullness of the space where the memories are.” (page 171)
“I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing — not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to it now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss? (page 181)
“In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.” (page 275)