After fiddling with the bits of leather designed to curtail a newly bought goshawk, T.H. White grumbled that 'It has never been easy to learn life from books' (The Goshawk, 1963). Helen Macdonald says the same thing, twice: all the books in piles on her desk, designed to help her deal with grief, cannot 'taxonomise the process, order it, make it sensible'. 'The books don't work,' she says. But it is The Goshawk and her own goshawk that pull her back into the world after her father's death, showing that books do work, but not on their own, and not in the way Macdonald imagined.
Each story Macdonald tells – of Mabel the goshawk, of White, of life after her father – wraps around the other like the jesses, swivel, and leash with which White fumbled. The prose has a hushed quality built from patient watching, from observing the hawk's flickering eyelids and the shuffling sounds of her preening. The silence is broken occasionally by the violence and movement of grief and the hunt. Wildness is not quite as separate as we like to imagine, and grief can show a different side of our own nature.