This is a very unusual book. It’s the story of one woman’s journey through the grief of losing her father. It’s also the story of a woman and a hawk, the strange juxtaposition of intimacy and distance that is inherent in the taming of a wild animal. It’s both memoir and biography, as the author intertwines her own story with that of T.H. White – another author who took on the challenge of training a goshawk and then made the experience into a work of literature. It combines genres in beautifully original ways, and is held together by a stylistic beauty that I found to be captivating. It’s not a book that will be universally enjoyed, but I found it to be deeply moving and compelling.
The story opens with the author unexpectedly losing her father. The way she describes her grief, and the emotional journey that she must live through is incredibly poignant. Her writing is rich and beautiful, and her thoughts about grief and depression are some of the most raw and true that I’ve ever read. I’ve experienced both bereavement and depression in my own life, and a number of the passages in this book rang very true for me. I was particularly struck by the way the author initially approaches grief as an academic, and then finds that the emotional depths of grief and loss don’t fit into boxes. She writes: “I bought books on grieving, on loss and bereavement. They spilled over my desk in tottering piles. Like a good academic, I thought books were for answers. Was it reassuring to be told that everyone sees ghosts? That everyone stops eating? Or can’t stop eating? Or that grief comes in stages that can be numbered and pinned like beetles in boxes? I read that after denial comes grief. Or anger. Or guilt. I remember worrying about which stage I was at. I wanted to taxonomies the process, order it, make it sensible. But there was no sense, and I didn’t recognize any of these emotions at all.”
The story of the author’s relationship with her hawk was also quite riveting for me. I’ve always been curious about falconry, but I’m mostly familiar with it in the context of medieval and renaissance history and fiction. Reading a modern first-person account of someone training a goshawk intrigued me. Even before her father’s death, Macdonald was already a falconry enthusiast, and while she had trained and hunted with falcons quite often, she had never before attempted training one of the (notoriously difficult) goshawks. The process sounded exhausting—spending hours just being still in the hawk’s presence, getting it used to the nearness of a human; the daunting prospect of taking the hawk outside and letting it become accustomed to the many overwhelming experiences that can be found there: joggers, lights, dogs, and cars; the eventual moment of letting go and trusting the bond between human and hawk enough to let the hawk fly free and hunt, hoping against hope that it will come back to you. The strange and strained relationship between woman and hawk seems to develop into a metaphor for the author’s own alienated relationship with humanity as she struggles through the throes of her own grief.
This book touched me deeply, and it was hard to let it go when it ended. I was moved by the beauty of the author’s writing. I was intrigued by the exploration of falconry and the relationship between a human and a wild bird. And I was incredibly touched by the raw and honest account of bereavement and loss, told in a way that I found both familiar and new.