H is for Hawk

David Fincher’s Gone Girl opens gazing upon the back of Amy’s blond head. Her husband Nick, in voice-over: “The primal questions of a marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other?” I thought of this while reading Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, when Macdonald’s gaze tried to penetrate the machinations of the goshawk, the notoriously difficult and lethal bird of prey she set about training:

I wave my hand in front of her face. She appears not to see it at all. Her eyes seem as remote from thought or emotion as a metal dish or a patch of sky. What is she thinking? What is she seeing? I wonder.

The relationship Macdonald fostered with her baby goshawk, which she named Mabel, often seemed as shifty and tenuous as the marriage in Gone Girl: begotten in a joyful serendipity but then marked by tumult and grief. Macdonald’s grief came from her falconer father’s sudden death, which inspired her, a falconer herself, to try for the goshawk. She deftly weaves details of this process with those of T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King, whose own inner turmoil compelled him to train a goshawk; his journals from the experience became his 1951 book The Goshawk.

I enjoyed the book for another, more pedantic reason: the author’s judicial deployment of the em dash. It’s a pet (peeve) issue of mine, how some writers whip out the em dash willy-nilly as an all-purpose intensifier—often where there’s nothing to dramatize. Or they use them—in lieu of commas or parentheses—to offset a parenthetical phrase. Macdonald’s Hemingwayan restraint and terse simplicity of prose befitted her subject, an animal with (literally) sharp features and ruthless killing efficiency. Both styles, of the writing and the hawk, come through in this passage describing Mabel’s first kill and the revelation it conjured for Macdonald:

Time stretches as slows. There’s a sense of panic at this point, a little buffet of fear that’s about annihilation and my place in the world. But then the pheasant is flushed, a pale and burring chunk of muscle and feathers, and the hawk crashes from the hedge towards it. And all the lines that connect heart and head and future possibilities, those lines that also connect me with the hawk and the pheasant and with life and death, suddenly become safe, become tied together in a small muddle of feathers and gripping talons that stand in mud in the middle of a small field in the middle of a small county in a small country on the edge of winter.

I stare at the hawk as she grips the dead pheasant, and her mad eyes stare right back at me. I’m amazed. I don’t know what I expected to feel. Bloodlust? Brutality? No. Nothing like that…. I look at the hawk, the pheasant, the hawk. And everything changes. The hawk stops being a thing of violent death. She becomes a child. It shakes me to the core. She is a child. A baby hawk that’s just worked out who she is. What she’s for.

Once a child obsessed with hawks, Macdonald was now the parent of one. And like any parent-child relationship the battle of wills, triumphant victories, discouraging setbacks, and sleepless nights would come to form Mabel and Macdonald in unexpected ways. I greatly enjoyed reading about them.