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On Broken Wings

H is for Hawk By Helen Macdonald ( Jonathan Cape 300pp £14.99)

The story told in this strange and beautiful book is, at heart, a simple one. Helen Macdonald’s father died when she was in her mid-thirties; she missed him painfully; so, for reasons she could not entirely explain to herself, she decided to buy a baby goshawk and train the creature. In her own words: ‘I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk.’

This is, then, the tale of an episode of self-care and self-transformation, and it is a fascinating, moving one, but it is also a good deal more. For one, it is a kind of conversation with and meditation on the English author T H White, whose 1930s memoir The Goshawk, once a staple of every earnest adolescent’s book shelf, is the direct ancestor of H is for Hawk. Macdonald’s book is utterly different from White’s in sensibility and tone – compassionate where White is sadistic, self-conscious where he is self-hating, democratic rather than feudal – and yet it is not hard to see the resemblances. To adapt a phrase from the Australian poet Les Murray, both White and Macdonald are only interested in everything.

Among the subjects Macdonald discusses or brushes against are chalk mysticism, the appeal of the BBC series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to a mourner, the great child analyst Donald Winnicott and his small patient who was obsessed with string, the career of the MI5 spymaster Maxwell Knight, the 13th-century poem Sir Orfeo, the culture of old-school press photographers (her late father’s profession), male homosexuality (White was an ‘invert’, and fought hard against his desires), an encounter with the former pilot of an American U-2 plane who had soothed his loneliness on the fringes of space by reading and rereading White’s popular Arthurian book The Once and Future King, shamanism, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Melanie Klein, Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale and cultural transmission from East to West during the Crusades.

Macdonald also resembles White in her gluttony for words both homely and exotic, their associations and histories (‘Patience. Derived from patior. Meaning to suffer’), their potential for working magic (White seems to have believed in the literal power of old spells) and making music. Unlike a lot of modern writers, Macdonald has an Elizabethan relish for the full orchestra of English, from the scientific and scholarly (‘proprioceptive’, ‘argillaceous’, ‘intercostal’, ‘cinereal’, ‘accipitrine’) to the lavender-scented and childish (‘cross’, ‘tummy’, ‘hop-skippity’) to the scruffy and slangy (‘vibe’, ‘whatever’).

Unless you are already a falconer, and perhaps even if you are, you will soon have your vocabulary stretched and seasoned. As a little girl Macdonald began to pray to the falcon-headed Egyptian god Horus; she was entranced not only by birds themselves but also by the glamorous jargon of falconry and luxuriated in its many terms of art: bate, tiercel, eyasses, passagers,

Handsome black binders for your collection

£14 uk (£18 elsewhere) inc. p&p email: creance, feak, rouse, mute, sails, pounces, train, yarak, secondaries, austringer, and so on. This early linguistic crush has obviously had lasting effects, since H is for Hawk also teems with some of the rarest birds of the OED: vermiculated, pickelhaube, point-source, khameez, brumous, jinked, tufa…

This may sound a trifle pedantic, even overegged, but in context the effect is anything but. Here is some context: her first meeting with the baby goshawk to whom she will eventually give the homely name Mabel. The creature has spent most of her life in boxes, and is overwhelmed by the flood of images that sweeps from her eyes to her brain when first exposed to daylight:

she can see everything: the point-source glitter on the waves, a diving cormorant a hundred yards out; pigment flakes under wax on the lines of parked cars; far hills and the heather on them and miles and miles of sky where the sun spreads on dust and water and illegible things moving in it that are white scraps of gulls. Everything upside down and new-stamped on her entirely astonished brain.

The quality that distinguishes this fine writing from Fine Writing is Macdonald’s passion for precision. Her eye is every bit as educated as her mind. Very

Literary Review | a u g u s t 2 0 1 4 10

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