Alisdair Macdonald died in 2007 at the age of 67. His daughter, Helen, was devastated by the photojournalist's sudden death – a heart attack – and, after the funeral, retreated to her home in Cambridge, England, to mourn. "I didn't sleep," she writes in a newly published memoir of the months that followed. "I drove around a lot. I stared at the sun going down and the sun coming up, and the sun in between." The days passed. She bought and read books "on grieving, on loss and bereavement" that "spilled over [her] desk in tottering piles." She was 37 years old, without a partner or children or a nine-to-five job to tether her to the world; she risked floating away. Nothing made sense any more and she feared she might be going crazy. She did the only sensible thing she could think of and bought a hawk.
"I picked a very strange way of coping with grief," she says.
H is for Hawk is the book borne out of the "absorbing and dark and beautiful experience," as she describes the period following her father's passing. On the surface, it's a chronicle of sorrow – the moment in every child's life when "you have to renegotiate your place in the world" and the experience of a daughter trying to find her way in the world without the man she considered "one of [her] best friends." It is a manual on falconry, too, a not-quite-step-by-step guide to caring for and training a bird of prey. It's also the love story of a woman and her raptor – Marley and Me with razor-sharp talons and a bouquet of dead pheasants. Finally, it's a literary biography of T.H. White, author of the Arthurian saga The Once and Future King, and a man who, like Macdonald, once tried to find solace in the flight of a goshawk.
"It's such a strange book," says Macdonald, on the phone from Cambridge earlier this week. "It didn't really seem to fit into any of the normal categories of nature writing or biography. And I thought, 'I don't know if anyone's going to read this.'"
People have. The book has been a bestseller since appearing in Britain last summer and won both the Costa Book Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize. The reviews in North America, where it has just been published, have been near-embarrassing in their praise. Writing in The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz called it "perhaps the finest non-fiction I read in the past year," while The New York Times' critic Dwight Garner said it was "so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it."
"It's flown high beyond my wildest expectations," Macdonald says.
I'm fairly certain H is for Hawk will be one of the finest books I read in 2015. Every so often a book comes across my desk that feels plucked from another time, as if archeologists uncovered an old, vellum-bound manuscript in the earth, dusted it off and sent it to the bookstore. I suspect this is partly due to the subject matter – after all, falconry is an ancient sport, conducted thousands of years ago much the same as today. The language, too, feels of another era: austringer, jesses, eyasses, haggards, creance, feak, mute, in yarak. Opening H is for Hawk is like reading a book only partially translated. ("There are words I didn't use in the book," Macdonald says. "There's a lovely word, to bowse" – pronounced booze – "that's the ancient falconers' word for the hawk's drinking. That's where we get the slang for drinking a ton.")
While not an ancient book, White in 1951 published his own memoir, The Goshawk, which Macdonald read as a young woman. She recalls being horrified by the author's relationship with his bird, Gos, which he purchased from a German breeder and attempted to train, badly. "I guess some small part of me for years had thought it would be nice to write a book that showed that humans and hawks can live really quite amazing, intimate lives with each other without that sense of cruelty and tragedy that's so clear in White's book," she says. Coincidentally, The Goshawk was reissued by New York Review Books in 2007, months after Alisdair's death.
Yet, as Macdonald reread White's memoir and pored over his papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, she experienced an unexpected kinship with the man.
"The great tragedy in the book is that he's fighting himself in the form of a hawk," Macdonald says of White, who struggled with his sexuality throughout his life. In order to train his bird, White "[fell] off the edge of the world – just in the way that I did, but flying from very different demons. I guess I ended up feeling a strange fellowship with this man, even though I think – I hope – we are very different people."
Unlike White, Macdonald was already an experienced falconer by the time she bought Mabel from a Belfast-area breeder for £800 ($1,520). She had never, however, trained a goshawk, which she describes in the book as "30 ounces of death in a feathered jacket." As she put it in a follow-up e-mail, the difference between training a goshawk and other raptors "is rather like the difference between handling a highly strung racehorse compared to a tractable pony."
A bird-obsessed child, she received her first kestrel – a falcon – when she was 12; it slept in her bedroom.
"I must have been a nightmarish child," she says. "My poor parents. I don't know how they put up with me, dragging them to zoos and falconry centres. It would be getting dark and I'd be clinging to the wire in front of an aviary, staring at some bird of prey. They'd say, 'Come on Helen, it's time to go home.'" She adopts the high-pitched scream of a child. "'No! Leave me here!'"
Falconry became a central part of her life. Macdonald, who is an affiliate of the department of history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge, has worked as a professional falconer, raptor conservationist and also bred falcons for one of the royal families of the United Arab Emirates. "There were these great moments where I'd accompany these captive-bred falcons over on the Sheik's private plane," she recalls. "It was a very weird experience." In 2006 she published Falcons, a natural history focusing on the bird's relationship with humans.
"What drives falconry is a desire to have this close, personal relationship with what is, in all intents and purposes, a wild bird," she explains. "Falconry is all about letting things go and hoping they'll come back to you."
Eventually, Macdonald had to let Mabel go, sending her goshawk to a breeding program where she was flown and cared for by a fellow falconer. Sadly, Mabel died in late 2013 from an airborne fungus called Aspergillosis. "I was in pieces," she says. "She was a really extraordinary animal."
Macdonald now has a small pet parrot named Birdoole for company, "which my friends tell me is emotionally far more healthy because it's much more cuddly, [although] it doesn't catch me pheasants, so it's not so good at getting me food to put on the table."
"For a long time I said I didn't want another hawk – another goshawk, anyway," she continues. "Then, a few weeks ago, I went to Ireland and I met a goshawk out there, and ended up feeding it and holding it for a while. And I suddenly found it very hard to give it back. And I thought, 'Oh, okay, I think there might have to be another hawk.'"