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What We're Reading: Helen Macdonald's 'H Is for Hawk'

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“I felt odd: overtired, overwrought, unpleasantly like my brain had been removed and my skull stuffed with something like microwaved aluminum foil, dinted, charred, and shorting with sparks.”—and so we meet Helen Macdonald in her gorgeous memoir, H is for Hawk. We soon come to learn that Macdonald is in her mid-thirties with no partner, no children, out of work (she’s an English professor), and grieving the loss of her father. Put safely, this is not a happy story. But surely it’s one of the best memoirs and piece of writing in recent memory.

It’s a story of coming undone—of sinking to your knees in despair and holding on to any tether of your former being you can find with a white-knuckled grip. If that seems like too much, please be prepared for what I am about to say: Macdonald, looking for anything to put herself back together, tries to claw back to the side of the living by buying herself a goshawk—a bird of prey. She names it Mabel (which, as Jason Sheeler points out in his EW review, is maybe/definitely the most homicidal name ever) and becomes a hermit with a hawk. That may sound crazy—and it is, you’re not wrong. But she needs it. She trains it, feeds it, and loves it to the point of addiction. It some ways she wants to be it: “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.” In some ways she becomes it. 

If you’ve never loved an animal, this understandly might seem out of reach. But if you’ve ever been broken by grief, then you’ll know that healing comes from a remarably odd set of unexpected angles. And, on a totally surface level, Macdonald’s writing is beautiful and compulsive, in a way I miss when I have to put the book down.