Before I tell you that a memoir about an out-of-work English professor grieving over her father who comes to find solace and purpose by killing bunnies for her hawk will be one of the loveliest things you’ll read this year, let’s get a couple of things out of the way. H Is for Hawk is not a Sue Grafton thriller. And if you’ve never bonded with an animal of any sort, you will not understand how special this book is.
Helen Macdonald grew up stomping around in the gray, rugged, muddy fields of rural England with her photographer father. He taught her how to watch, how to wait for things to happen; she was 12 when she saw her first orange-eyed goshawk. Macdonald is in her mid-30s when her dad dies, and—with “no father, no partner, no child, no job, no home”—she starts rereading T.H. White’s manual about raising birds of prey, The Goshawk, published years after his famous King Arthur novel The Sword in the Stone. White, dealing with his closeted homosexuality, became obsessed with his goshawk. Macdonald follows suit, acquiring a fledgling hawk named Mabel (is there a less homicidal name?) and becoming “a hermit with a hawk” with an unplugged phone and a freezer full of baby chicken carcasses. As she plays catch with Mabel(!) and serenades her with “My Favorite Things,” she keeps dipping back into The Goshawk to read about White’s devotion. The scenes bouncing back and forth can be too much. You want to shake the lady and tell her to stay in the present—both in her life and in the book. When she writes, “I wanted to sink to my knees and weep every time she tried to fly away,” you know things are going Year of Magical Thinking crossed with Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. But if you’ve suffered through the worldviewshifting loss of a parent, you get it.
Mabel soon takes flight to hunt for rabbits, pheasants, and—in one particularly chilling scene—Macdonald herself. Watching Mabel fly “is a rush,” she writes, “as ruinous, in a way, as if I’d taken a needle and shot myself with heroin.” You’re addicted by that point too. Reading Macdonald’s short chapters and stunted sentences—little synapses from her now-SSRI-clouded brain—you get a little high. When the bird makes her first kill, the scene is indeed as graphic and pulsing as any Grafton thriller. And when Macdonald helps, we realize that Helen’s not the Hawk Woman, she’s the Hawk Mother. You’ll never see a bird overhead the same way again. A–