Book Review: H is for Hawk

Thursday 20 November 2014 by

H is for Hawk, Book, Jonathan Cape, Helen Macdonald, Samuel Johnson prizeH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Published by Jonathan Cape

‘In real life, goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier, and much, much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they’re the birdwatchers’ dark grail.’

As a child Helen Macdonald was determined to become a falconer. She learned the arcane terminology and read all the classic books, including T. H. White’s tortured masterpiece, The Goshawk, which describes White’s struggle to train a hawk as a spiritual contest.

When her father dies and she is knocked sideways by grief, she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She buys Mabel for £800 on a Scottish quayside and takes her home to Cambridge. Then she fills the freezer with hawk food and unplugs the phone, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this wildest of animals.

‘To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so gain the ability to predict what it will do next. Eventually you don’t see the hawk’s body language at all. You seem to feel what it feels. The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own. As the days passed and I put myself in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her, my humanity was burning away.’

Destined to be a classic of nature writing, H is for Hawk is a record of a spiritual journey – an unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald’s struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk’s taming and her own untaming. At the same time, it’s a kaleidoscopic biography of the brilliant and troubled novelist T. H. White, best known for The Once and Future King. It’s a book about memory, nature and nation, and how it might be possible to try to reconcile death with life and love.


When I picked this book up, I knew it would likely be a fabulous read; winner of the Samuel Johnson prize, shortlisted for the Waterstones Book of the Year, gracing the Costa Book Awards shortlist, and gathering in all manner of prizes as it goes, H is for Hawk can easily be given the honour of standout book of the year.

We all know by now that I am a devourer of fiction in its vast forms. I haltingly glance over the non-fiction tables and often move on, but H is for Hawk is a beautiful book (that cover is exquisite), and it caught my eye instantly. It haunted me for weeks, first appearing everywhere, in every bookshop, on all the podcasts I listen to, and then as it began to win prizes. When it finally reached the Waterstones Book of the Year shortlist, I decided that enough was enough and I had to read it.

This book left me totally breathless. Its sheer scope is enough to feel overwhelmed at times; a blur of memoir and nature writing, a biography of T.H. White, and the process of falconry, Macdonald somehow manages to create an incredibly fused and beautiful book.

Throughout, there is a single thread that sits thinly beneath the surface; Macdonald’s grief over the loss of her father borders on (what she fears to be) madness. She finds herself drifting free of her life – her friends and work and even her family seem further away with each page. And yet, Mabel is there to anchor her. Mabel the goshawk leaps from the page. She is a shimmering, violent character that is both captivating and terrifying. It’s not hard to imagine why Macdonald became so obsessed with her; perhaps it is the nature of the narrative, but Mabel seems to be the only firm point in the book, the rest of it drifts with the storytelling.

There are a lot of parallels I could draw – The Owl who Liked Sitting on Caesar and W.G. Sebald (her poetical streak reminded me a lot of The Rings of Saturn) in particular – but in truth it’s quite unique. My highlights were the descriptions of the landscapes; they are haunting and beautiful, and create a whole new depth. You can hear the awe and love that Macdonald feels towards the countryside, her almost unhealthy obsession. There is a moment when she comes across some deer in a hollow, and another when thousands of tiny spiders are hatching and drifting across a field, and I read those pages several times over because they were just so jubilant and insistent, as if I was there next to her.

But there is also a remarkable streak to the book; Macdonald traces the story of T.H. White, author and wannabe falconer. This pseudo-biography adds extra dimensions to her own experiences with Mabel. This is no simple story, this is a myriad of stories, both her own and someone else’s, and the skill lies in the mix of them. There are parallels and comparisons in the passages she picks to illustrate her own chapter, and it’s fascinating to read these two opposing experiences of goshawks, with her own notations thrown in.

It’s impossible to pin down H is for Hawk. It is a cocktail of genres. But in the end, it was never Mabel, or the landscape, or even White’s story, which made this book so incredible for me. It was her description of grief. Macdonald is unafraid in the retelling of her time as she dealt with her father’s death, and some of the most beautiful language comes out of the moments when she tries to articulate what she feels. She is the closest I have read to actually doing it; to actually turning bereavement in to something that can be described.

H is for Hawk has been described as breathtaking, captivating, and stunning, but in truth it is much like trying to explain grief to someone who has never grieved; you can fill up buckets with words, but they never quite match the enormity of what you’re trying to describe.

“We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost.”



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