H Is for Hawk
by Helen MacDonald.
Grove Press, Reprint Edition, 2016.
Paper, 320 pages, $16.

Reviewed by Jason Morgan

In her beautifully crafted H Is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald’s readers meet a sensitive woman—broken on the wheel of bad relationships, family tragedy, and urban anonymity—telling the truth of her sorrowing heart in eidetic prose. H Is for Hawk made the New York Times Book Review Top Ten list for 2015, and deservedly so. MacDonald frames both interior and natural states in such sparse and luminous sentences, so stark with honesty, that there are few recent books which come to mind that might rival, aesthetically speaking, what MacDonald has accomplished in this one.

And yet, for all of MacDonald’s well-earned accolades, her reviewers seem, without exception, to have entirely missed the key point, and the glaring failure, of H Is for Hawk. In fine, Helen MacDonald is among the more elegant expositors of the neuroses attendant upon modernity. To be sure, MacDonald’s book is largely about a bird. Mabel is a magnificent goshawk whom MacDonald, a bird enthusiast since childhood, buys and trains while grieving the loss of her beloved father. MacDonald, vulnerable and alone, enters into an intense, lopsided involvement with her splendid beast. Although MacDonald never explicitly says so, my hunch is that the title, H Is for Hawk, is a kind of confession of the too-deep, too-fraught emotional attachment that MacDonald developed for Mabel. Far on the frontiers of her own human nature, and bleeding dangerously into the world of parallax vision and untamable wildness that Mabel embodies, MacDonald seems to have forgotten, for a bleak season of her life, that “H,” in reality, stands for “Helen.” This is the key point of the book that the reviewers have missed.

But this spellbinding memoir of heartbreak, sadness, perdition, and the slow return to the folds of more pedestrian humanity is not, compelling as it is, where the true lessons of H Is for Hawk lie. For, in order to understand what MacDonald’s book is telling us, one must first admit that it is a failure. This failure is the real theme of this otherwise fully matured work of literary non-fiction.

H Is for Hawk is one of those books built on another book, like Alan Booth’s Looking for the Lost (1995), which follows Dazai Osamu’s diaries around Tōhoku, Japan, or Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997), which many took to be a Civil War-era retelling of the Odyssey. In MacDonald’s case, her literary cornerstone is T. H. White’s The Goshawk (1951). White (1906–1964), readers will recall, was the author of The Sword in the Stone (1938) and other fantasy retellings of the legends of King Arthur, Merlyn, Lancelot, and Guinevere, eventually collected in The Once and Future King (1958). While White’s fame rests largely on these reworkings of the Arthurian stories, The Goshawk reveals a different side of the man: alienation, disillusion, psychosexual torment, troubling of soul. The Goshawk recounts White’s attempts to tame, and find solace in, a wild bird of prey, in the process becoming perhaps more hawk-like than the bird became civilized. Like MacDonald, White, too, found that the bird was not the solution to his problems. And like MacDonald, White came to see falconry itself—the ancient sport of kings with a long pedigree in England, Europe, Eurasia, and beyond—as part of the problem. Herein lies the rub.

H Is for Hawk is not, essentially, a memoir of grief and redemption, although it is partly that. No, the story that H Is for Hawk really tells is of the collapse—the rejection, is closer to the truth—of Western civilization. The personal misfittings that MacDonald experiences largely follow in the train of that central wreck, strewn about our dying culture, around which everyone gingerly steps. No sound, no fury, signifying everything we need to know about hard separation from the past. Distaste for one’s ancestors is not a sign of a healthy societal state. And yet this is precisely the brass-tacks subtext of H Is for Hawk. MacDonald, like White, is a homeless modern, unable to see that the civilization she despises was a powerful force keeping at bay the existential driftlessness of the modern condition.

Falcons without falconry are just incomprehensible birds. Majestic, to be sure, but with no context within which humans might interact with them. Likewise, people without heritages are as jetsam cast randomly upon the face of the deep. MacDonald wants Mabel, but without the tradition of falconry, which MacDonald condemns as patriarchal, misogynistic, and racist. What MacDonald gets, then, is Mabel unmediated, and the corybantic, murderous instincts of this cold-blooded killer draw her non-winged counterpart into the wilderness of the human heart, the fringes and wastelands which civilization helps to build bulwarks against. Mabel without falconry is still a falcon, of course—perhaps even better off, as her dogged preference for flying without leashes and anklets attests. But Helen without England is a sitting duck, prey to the myriad of inhumanities which typify the modern English city in which MacDonald works and lives. Mabel fully belongs in the trees and sky, hunting the rustling game below. MacDonald, though, is a stranger in her own country. In spite of itself, H Is for Hawk is an eloquent diagnosis of this civilizational unraveling.

Liberal platitudes at key moments reveal it to be so. “White’s politics were deeply unfortunate,” MacDonald chides. “He hated nationalism, but certainly did not believe people were equal. He did not like Hitler. But he did not like the British government either.” And so we find the egalitarian MacDonald, giving us glimpses of the ruins of her own England, where the equality that she says White disapproved of has moved into full-blown cultural masochism.

The central example of this is MacDonald’s activist passivity in accepting the radical undoing of her own cultural heritage. MacDonald is ashamed of the xenophobia of modern Britain—how it will not fully capitulate to the flood tide of immigration that is transforming every aspect of European life. She takes antidepressants, wracked by the ennui of cultural dislocation. She feels guilty about feeling connected to the chalk landscapes of England, because of a “presumption of organic connections to a landscape, a sense of belonging sanctified through an appeal to your own imagined lineage.” She is “sad as hell” when she meets a retired couple out walking in a field who are heartened by the sight of a herd of deer: “Doesn’t it give you hope?” the couple says to MacDonald. “Isn’t it a relief that there’re things still like that, a real bit of Old England still left, despite all these immigrants coming in?” Within a half-paragraph, MacDonald is comparing the elderly couple’s nostalgia for a better time with “myths of blood-belonging, and […] Göring’s plans to exclude Jews from German forests.” “I wish we would not fight for landscapes that remind us of who we think we are,” MacDonald says in summary of this awkward encounter. “I wish we would fight, instead, for landscapes buzzing and glowing with life in all its variousness.”

This is the real failure of H Is for Hawk. For all of its perspicacity in looking inward, it fails to look out and around. England is collapsing. The European continent is in a much more advanced state of destruction. Entire banlieues of Paris are off-limits even to French police, having become perfect reproductions of the dystopias which send out their huddled masses into the prosperous West. MacDonald’s strange cultural relativism works in only one direction, though. “Life in all its variousness” is meaningless unless the immigrants have some substantial culture of their own. Apparently this is granted them. They are real people, from real places, with real heritages and identities. They have cultures—they must, otherwise multiculturalism would make no sense. But not the English. English culture, including the grand art of falconry, is a scourge, a burden to be sloughed off at the earliest possible opportunity, and all in the name of unexamined liberalism. Thus, a couple who enjoy connection to their landscape are, in MacDonald’s estimation, the same as the Nazis.

H Is for Hawk may be the story of one woman’s struggle with personal grief, but if readers look closely, they will find that just beneath the surface it is also—and much more importantly—the story of an entire civilization’s nonchalant suicide.  

Jason Morgan teaches at Reitaku University, Japan.