Helen Macdonald’s extraordinary memoir, H Is for Hawk, is on nearly every best-books-of-2015 list, and for good reason. I’m not generally a memoir fan myself, but I picked up the audiobook at my local library and have been listening to it, enthralled, for the last week. The audio version is read by Macdonald herself; most authors aren’t very good audiobook narrators, but Macdonald is a brilliant exception: her reading is rich, supple, expressive, and perfectly paced, and she makes tiny but effective modulations from her native British accent to portray the characters in the book.
In the book Macdonald, devastated by the death of her father, finds a path out of grief through buying and training a goshawk. (In addition to avoiding memoirs, I also tend to avoid stories about animals. As I said, H Is for Hawk is exceptional.) Woven through her personal narrative is a parallel story about the English writer T. H. White, best known for his Arthurian fiction The Once and Future King but also the author of The Goshawk, a 1951 memoir about his own struggles with a goshawk.
Macdonald’s goshawk arrives without a name. Eventually, Macdonald decides to remedy that omission:
As I sit there happily feeding titbits to the hawk, her name drops into my head. Mabel. From amabilis, meaning loveable, or dear. An old, slightly silly name, an unfashionable name. There is something of the grandmother about it: antimacassars and afternoon teas. There’s a superstition among falconers that a hawk’s ability is inversely proportional to the ferocity of its name. Call a hawk Tiddles and it will be a formidable hunter; call it Spitfire or Slayer and it will probably refuse to fly at all. [T. H.] White called his hawk Gos for short, but also awarded him a host of darkly grandiose other names that for years made me roll my eyes in exasperation. Hamlet. Macbeth. Strindberg. Van Gogh. Astur. Baal. Medici. Roderick Dhu. Lord George Gordon. Byron. Odin. Nero. Death. Tarquin. Edgar Allan Poe. Imagine, I used to think, amused and faintly contemptuous. Imagine calling your goshawk any of those things! But now that list just made me sad. My hawk needed a name as far from that awful litany, as far from Death as it could get. ‘Mabel.’ I say the word out loud to her and watch her watching me say it. My mouth shapes the word. ‘Mabel.’ And as I say it, it strikes me that all those people outside the window who shop and walk and cycle and go home and eat and love and sleep and dream – all of them have names. And so do I. ‘Helen,’ I say. How strange it sounds. How very strange. I put another piece of meat on my glove and the hawk leans down and eats.