A young woman mourns her dead father, trains a goshawk and meditates on the repressed life of novelist T.H. White
Helen Macdonald, a young history scholar at Cambridge, is shocked when her photographer father, in the middle of an assignment, falls dead on the streets of London. The stark weeks and months that follow, however, bring her no relief. In fact, she starts to believe she is losing her mind. Already an expert on hawks, those wild alien hunters, an idea presses on her: she will train a young goshawk. She is emulating another young intellectual at his wit’s end: T.H. White, the English novelist who wrote The Once and Future King, a magical story about King Arthur. The story is how stricken Helen trains the baby goshawk Mabel into a playful completely inhuman killing machine. What becomes apparent is that Helen was successful in training her goshawk (and has the scars to show for it), while T.H. White was not. At the end of the year of training, Mabel is an accomplished killer, Helen is enjoying life again, and T.H. White’s life remains sad and possibly unfulfilled.
For me, the book started slowly and I thought the prose was too pretty and too repressed. I didn’t understand how the book became a bestseller. However, after about 50 pages, I started to get into the story between the obsessive woman with nothing in her life and the completely wild animal she sets out to mold to her will. Interspersed with the structured story of how to train a goshawk, is the sad story of T.H. White, who could not fit himself to his time and perhaps could never fit himself to any time. What he really struggled with was not the goshawk and his contrary method of training her, but his own fears. The lesson Helen learned is that she is not an invulnerable raptor, but a softhearted human, not a hunting bird.
This felt like a book Helen Macdonald was born to write, like a million to one shot. I'm not sure if she will be able to write another one.