Oh, you guys. This book. Took me a couple of tries to get into it, and then BOOM--couldn't put it down.
In case you haven't already heard of it, it's a memoir of author Helen Macdonald's life after her beloved father died unexpectedly. Barely functioning in her grief, she turns to her lifelong fascination with raptors and decides to train a goshawk. This is kind of advanced work in the world of raptors--goshawks aren't warm, fuzzy creatures, the kind you'd expect someone to adopt to help cope with grief (my choice would probably be a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel). They're hunters. They're not generally loving towards humans. They have distinct personalities and can be difficult.
But Macdonald, as I mentioned, had always been a raptor enthusiast, and the goshawk she adopts (wonderfully named Mabel) is both a source of stress and frustration, and love and determination. This isn't a cheery, sweet, "Oh, hey, look, me and my goshawk are BONDING" kind of book. This is a woman working out a terrible grief with an unusual calling, one that's definitely not for everyone.
Throughout, she talks about the author T.H. White (The Once and Future King), who also trained a goshawk, but did spectacularly poorly at it on his first try, then wrote a book about it. I didn't know much about White, but just learning that he was gay in the first half of the 20th century in Britain should tell you a lot about what he went through. It was not a good time to be gay, anywhere, and his attempts to "overcome" it are painful and heartbreaking.
Macdonald isn't comparing herself to White. They have very distinct experiences, and very distinct histories. But there are parallels that can be drawn between the anguish she suffers and the anguish he suffered.
And the writing--oh, it's beautiful:
"This hawk can see colours I cannot, right into the ultraviolet spectrum. She can see polarised light, too, watch thermals of warm air rise, roil, and spill into clouds, and trace, too, the magnetic lines of force that stretch across the earth. The light falling into her deep black pupils is registered with such frightening precision that she can see with fierce clarity things I can't possibly resolve from the generalised blur. The claws on the toes of the house martins overhead. The veins on the wings of the white butterfly hunting its wavering course over the mustards and the end of the garden. I'm standing there, my sorry human eyes overwhelmed by light and detail, while the hawk watches everything with the greedy intensity of a child filling in a colouring book, scribbling joyously, blocking in colour, making the pages its own."
And about White himself:
"There seemed to be some deep connection between White's drinking and his evasiveness. And I was sure that it was the drink that irrigated White's constant self-sabotage, for it is a common trait of alcoholics to make plans and promises, to oneself, to others, fervently, sincerely, and in hope of redemption. Promises that are broken, again and again, through fear, through loss of nerve, through any number of things that hide that deep desire, at heart, to obliterate one's broken self."