It’s not difficult to see why Helen Macdonald’s memoir of training a goshawk won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. In beautiful prose with more than just a touch of the poetic, she recounts how her hurt mind struggled to right itself after the devastating loss of her father in the companionship and education of this bird of prey. The memoir is inventive in its mixing of genres. In analysing her mental history through the relationship with the goshawk and with her father and its contextualisation in depression, a sort of confessional, self-reflective mode of writing, she also merges a biographical literary criticism of T. H. White, who himself wrote the tortured recollection The Goshawk, which describes his own struggle to train a hawk as a spiritual contest. This postmodern framing of the memoir, in which the experience of the other (the man, the homosexual), and the other himself is constantly contrasted against the lived experience of Macdonald and her person is engaging and subtle. The contrast also shows how different Macdonald’s personal relation to falconry is from those who engaged in the sport in the past.
The Macdonald that emerges from this memoir is complex, clever and passionate. Dealing with the death of our loved ones is one of the biggest challenges we face as human beings and it is clear from the memoir how the unbearable grief attacks the mind, forces acts of insanity. At one point in the novel, unable to cope with life in death’s aftermath, Macdonald crawls into a cardboard box, trying to move into a safe, isolated space. Throughout her experience of grief and depression, she shuns others, charged with an anger against the world. The ironic touch is that Macdonald rationally understands that grief has such stages and she constantly references psychology and psychoanalysis throughout the work. The problem is, she is unable to turn this knowledge into a practical domestication of the emotional side of her grief.
The work is captivating on a number of levels. Firstly, Macdonald interrogates our modern and historic relationship with nature and the animal world by retelling her story of her encounter with the hawk. She shows us how radically other to us the bird of prey is, yet how we must always endow it with humanity and human thoughts. She shows us how men have historically constructed the hawk as an avatar of troubling femininity, a representative of class, social status and belonging or made it the emblem of a fascist politics. In her own mystical merging with the identity of the hawk through her depression, she shows how intense our relationship to nature can be. She shows how integral the construction of nature and the hawk and falconry is to our identities. Of course, the work is a sustained and interesting meditation on grief and its effects. In addition, Macdonald’s interpretation of T. H. White’s struggle with his goshawk is an inspiring example of detailed scholarship and deep thought. She breathes life into this forgotten author by analysing a crucial relationship in his life and seems to go deeply into the heart of his being.
Uncomfortable reading at times, and sometimes so self-searching and self-reflective that one feels a very real awkwardness, a sense of intruding on someone’s deepest personal thoughts and their deepest construction of themselves, Macdonald’s memoir is riveting reading. It is something innovative, something special. It knows its place in the history of nature history memoirs, to which it refers and it bends the rules to create something unique. It is undoubtedly one of the best books I have read this year and I would not hesitate to recommend a careful reading of it to anyone.