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book review

<137>March 3, 2015 - Cambridge, England -<137> After he father’s death, Helen MacDonald was teaching in <137>, seen author of "H is for Hawk" outside of her former college in<137> Cambridge when she says she started dreaming of hawks.<137>. Note: The college is written about in her memoir. Charla Jones for The Globe and Mail<137>Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail

A woman's father dies. As a way to cope with her loss, the woman, who loves falconry, acquires and sets out to train a goshawk, a type of bird known for its stubborn and vicious disposition. While doing so, she's haunted by the life of T.H. White, tortured author of The Goshawk, a book about being an incompetent falconer.

Some books defy summary. Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk arrives in North America on an updraft of buzz rare for nature books, memoirs or biographies of dead English authors with mental-health issues – the threads that the book can be said to contain. Yet as soon as you open it, you can see why it's drawn raves from the British press, and why it captured last year's Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction: Macdonald's prose sends you into a variegated gyre of memory, emotion and description so precise, raw and sad that it feels wrought from the blood-smeared bones of a freshly flayed chick.

Pain is central to the story. After her father's death, Macdonald, who is living and teaching at Cambridge, feels like her life has been seized away from her. By her own admission, she's beset by a kind of madness. "Something new began," she writes. "I started dreaming of hawks all the time."

Enter Mabel, her goshawk, who becomes, for Macdonald, the embodiment of escape, a vehicle to ride through the rift that's opened in the sky above her life. Taming the hawk, training it to kill, killing with it, channelling its yen for death: These are the cruel keys to transcending grief. Every talon gouge or animal rebuff Macdonald gets from the bird is another wound on which to build the scar tissue of her recovery.

The mix of genres, techniques and emotions makes it difficult to nail down the book's pedigree, especially since the blending is so seamless. Genres usually give us standards against which to measure a work, but there isn't a lot out there that H is for Hawk resembles. It has elements of a spiritual journey, a mourner's diary, a chronicle of obsession and a catalogue of knowledge on an arcane subject. Blustery as it sounds, it's perhaps best compared to Moby-Dick (but with a more mournful heart), although John Vaillant's The Golden Spruce also comes to mind, as does Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. And of course, there are the books of T.H. White: the Arthurian epic The Once and Future King, and The Goshawk – the latter of which, to Macdonald's credit, she manages to incorporate so thoroughly into the story that being completely unfamiliar with it is no obstacle to enjoyment for the reader.

The same goes for her use of the hawker's vocabulary. The best nature writers know that, far from being an obfuscating agent, the strange language of a particular world is a way to invite readers into its mystical heart. Austringers, mutes, jesses and bates: These words become totems that Macdonald deploys with incantatory conviction, as a way to surround us in her consciousness while she wades through despair, alienation and no small number of quail and rabbit carcasses.

Part of the magic of her prose is that it never feels technical. The sentences are short and swift, and at least every couple of pages there's a vivid line or two that points to Macdonald's background in verse. (Her first book, Shaler's Fish, was a poetry collection.) Here she is describing Mabel: "Formidable talons, wicked, curved black beak, sleek, café-au-lait front streaked thickly with cocoa-coloured teardrops, looking for all the world like some cappuccino samurai." And later, simpler, assessing herself: "My heart is salt." She weaves detail and metaphor together like a brier crown, intricate, barbed and beautiful.

For all of its stylistic virtues, though, the book cuts so deep because of the basic concern at its core: It's about hawks, sure, and about White, but mostly it's about her father, and about love. It would be brutal to reveal too many specifics, but let's just say that the moment when Macdonald truly clamps her beak around your cardiac veins and tugs – the moment when I fell apart, anyway – comes late in the narrative, with perhaps the book's simplest and most familiar sentence, whispered to the ghost of her father. It's when her tense, ingenious balancing act between wildness and humanity falters, and we circle back to the messy, mundane crux of her problem: She's a woman broken by grief and loneliness, trying to find her way back to being whole.

The book itself is the great metaphorical alchemy of her reassembly: disparate literary and historical parts, brought together into a pulsing song of life. It's a book to give as a gift, to anyone you know well enough to send sifting through old bones, shattered hearts and mutilated pheasants, in search of grace.

J.R. McConvey produces nature and science documentaries, and watches birds from his office window. He's on Twitter @jrmcconvey.

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