I sometimes struggle to define and describe good writing at the sentence and word level. I can work out what makes a plot click along well or what strong characterization looks like. But with excellent word-smithery, the best I can do is point at it and say, “Yes, I like this. This works for me.” So here, let me point at this:
The goshawk is staring at me in mortal terror, and I can feel the silences between both our heartbeats coincide. her eyes are luminous, silver in the gloom. Her beak is open. She breathes hot hawk breath in my face. It smells of pepper and mush and burned stone. Her feathers are half-raised and her wings half-open, and her scaled yellow toes and curved black talons grip the glove tightly. It feels like I’m holding a flaming torch. I can feel the heat of her fear on my face. She stares. She stares and stares. Seconds slow and tick past. Her wings are dropped low; she crouches, ready for flight. I don’t look at her. I mustn’t. What I am doing is concentrating very hard on the process of not being there.
This is how Helen Macdonald begins her first full day with the goshawk she has just adopted and is planning to train. Macdonald was already an experienced falconer when her father died and she decided to work through her grieving by taking on the challenge of flying a goshawk, something she’d never wanted to do. She writes,
I’d never never thought I’d train a goshawk. Ever. I’d never seen anything of myself reflected in their solitudinous, murderous eyes. Not for me, I’d thought, many times. Nothing like me. But the world had change, and so had I.
There I go, just pointing again. But isn’t that good? H Is for Hawk is a great example of a book where the writing can make a subject that isn’t intrinsically interesting into something fascinating. (Although, given that I tend to enjoy reading about all sorts of animals, this isn’t a topic that’s totally off the beaten track for me.)
Macdonald chronicles the months she spends training the goshawk she eventually names Mabel. She takes readers through each step of the process, from acclimating Mabel to her presence to letting her fly free. Along the way, she charts the setbacks and the surprises, such as learning that goshawks do play–or at least, this goshawk does.
Coming so soon after her father’s death, Macdonald’s work with Mabel is tied up with her grieving and healing process. It’s not always clear whether the work, which requires her to spend a great deal of time in isolation, is helping her, distracting her, or keeping her from moving on. Macdonald doesn’t try all the threads together in a tidy way, although she muses on the connection between her grief and her work with Mabel–how she’s becoming wild herself.
As Macdonald trains Mabel, she looks to falconers of the past, most notably T.H. White, whose memoir The Goshawk is her example of what not to do. These passages were, especially at the start, more of a distraction than anything. I could appreciate her bringing White’s failure with his goshawk into her own story, but her attempts to analyze White as a person weren’t so interesting. The good writing (see it above!) was enough to keep me going, but I wanted to get back to Helen’s own story. There were points, however, when I fretted over White and his goshawk. I just could have done with less of them.
Otherwise, however, I thoroughly enjoyed this and recommend it even if you don’t think you care at all about falconry.