Wild and unknowable: a review of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is experimental non­fiction that hoodwinks booksellers and readers alike. Most retailers are divided when it comes to settling on where to shelve the book. Some will decide the story must’ve held more details about the titular bird rather than the person who wrote it (‘Wildlife’) whereas others will maintain it is the story of a woman’s life after her father’s death (‘Biography’) and some will even suggest it’s actually a first­-person account of a falconer­-in-­training inspired by the late author and failed goshawk trainer,T.H. White (‘Memoir’). All these conclusions are somewhat correct. Yet a close reading of the text will reveal that Macdonald’s book is actually a cross­breed of genres (or in marketing terms, ‘three stories for the price of one’ ): grief memoir, re­imagined biography and field guide­-style nature writing.

Macdonald is also a hybrid; not just a writer but a poet, illustrator, academic, and professional falconer. Her narrative voice is informed by the the threading together of her personal and professional life: the obsessive detail of a woman tasking herself with access to T.H. White’s journals to recreate his interior life for a new audience; the vulnerability of someone who is grieving a family member and prone to episodes of derealisation and splintered language and the reverence of someone who has grown to love and look for humanity in the wildest, most feral of birds.

Many readers may become interested in this book not just because of its prize-­winning status (of the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book Award, both in 2014) but also also as fans of her regular New York Times column On Nature in which she writes at length about how human language and logic often fail us when we are confronted with the natural world.

Despite where the book is often physically shelved away, H is for Hawk may also attract a female audience who — bored of conventional literature — are craving new narratives about what it means to be female-­identifying in a postmodern world. Macdonald’s vivid and unfiltered prose echo the voices of other women who also called into question what a nonfiction novel could be: Renata Adler in Speedboat, Sheila Heti in How Should A Person Be?, Leanne Shapton in Swimming Studies or even — a personal favourite of Macdonald’s that cleverly blends art history with imaginative writing — Ali Smith in How to be Both. Previously, where this avant garde genre of literature has typically been written off as inaccessible, Macdonald’s worldview expertly weaves environmental issues, British nationalism, the relationship between humans and their winged counterparts and the reality of being an unattached woman in her late thirties with no children, no job and no home.

Mabel the goshawk in her first year. Photo courtesy Helen Macdonald.

Rather than the classic path of purely factual or economical prose that we might find in a non­fiction book like Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds or the metaphor-­heavy ramblings of the original — predominantly male — nature writers (Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopald, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Burroughs, John Muir, etc.), Macdonald prefers to talk to us through the interior mode of her self-conscious, shaped by artefacts such as her personal diaries and decades of academic research. Like Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway, we as readers can’t assume that a single subjective consciousness — whether that be Macdonald’s memory, the academic texts and conversations she quotes or the pop culture references she draws upon — to be truer than the other.

In a past life as a literature student, Helen Macdonald recalls her poetry as ‘complicated, refracted things, full of dead ends and strange syntax, and odd lyric surfaces with rhyme bubbling through’ . In H for Hawk, she continues to make skilful use of poetic techniques, folding through prose poetry and incantatory language into the dough of the narrative. The naturalist John Muir once observed, “When you tug at a single thing in the universe, you found it’s attached to everything else.” At once an apt metaphor for the potential technology offers humanity, it also reflects the conundrum of language in H for Hawk. We can’t help but become swept up in what it feels like to surrender ourselves to a narrative voice that chooses to be associative in the way that someone on the internet is floating in a stream of 11 consciousness, constantly Googling abstract phrases (‘A car wreck. A plane crash. A comet smeared across the morning sky. A Prime Minister wiping his brow.’) or hyperlinking through an endless rabbit hole where one thing leads to another and another (‘ When you are broken, you run. But you don’t always run away. Sometimes, helplessly, you run towards.’). This transforms what could otherwise be read as a static text as a three-dimensional wholly immersive experience.

With her father, Alisdair Macdonald. Photo courtesy Helen Macdonald.

So often, memoirs are about disclosure: spilling our guts or ‘becoming knowable, loveable, engrossing’. But successful immersion is often more about making sure you remain hidden, something that H is for Hawk (and Macdonald) does well. In a chapter from the book named — in part — after a book by Ernest Hemingway, the author remarks, ‘When you are learning how to do something, you do not have to worry about whether or not you are good at it. But when you have done something, have learned how to do it, you are not safe anymore. Being an expert opens you up to judgement.’

Perhaps the greatest triumph of this book is also what makes it so frustrating for anyone naive enough to expect an easy ­breezy read: it is dazzling and vivid with its wordplay but also wild and unknowable in its nature, as is grief, as is loss, as is what lies ahead for us and the foreseeable state of the world we live in.