The BUZZ: First published in the UK in 2014 where it became a bestseller and a winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize. A current NYT non-fiction bestseller.
The GIST: Helen Macdonald’s father dies suddenly on a London street, and her world dissolves. With no partner, no job, and no home of her own, she is scrabbling for a foothold on life. Her savior comes in the form of Mabel, a young goshawk she decides to train in the fields of Cambridge. Macdonald is an experienced falconer, but she has selected the most difficult and murderous of all the raptors as her daemon. This is the story of her world with Mabel, her grief and its path, and the intersection of her journey with that of T. H. White, author of The Once and Future King. In exploring hawk mastery, the natural world, the raw edges of loss, and this enigmatic fellow goshawk trainer, Macdonald comes to startling and life-changing conclusions.
The WRITING: Brilliant. Macdonald’s prose is something like flight itself: fierce, powerful, graceful, and uplifting. Her father’s death is gutting – her word, and perfect. She is devastated, and she can describe this state better than any writer I have encountered. She takes to the fields and woods with Mabel and places us there with them both, hunting among the hedges and the pheasants and rabbits, smelling the newly cut hay and sensing the crisp winter air. A hawk’s world is visceral and instinctive, not for the faint of heart. Macdonald is vulnerable and brave and, because of this exquisite tension, each moment of the book soars. It’s a dazzling piece of work by a writer who is of this earth but whose gifts border on the mystical.
BUY or BORROW?: This one is a keeper, a classic in both naturalist writing and writing about pulling oneself back from the deepest valley of grief. A few passages brought tears to my eyes, they were so beautiful and poignant. From the start, I believed Macdonald would move past this dark place in her life and that her magnificent goshawk would help her regain her place among the living.
There was nothing that was such a salve to my grieving heart as my hawk returning. But it was hard, now, to distinguish between my heart and the hawk at all. When she sat twenty yards across the pitch part of me sat there too, as if someone had taken my heart and moved it that little distance.
It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion; that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them – that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me.