Helen Macdonald with her goshawk Mabel.
Photo courtesy of The New Yorker Magazine.
H is for Hawk is a memoir written by Helen Macdonald, a third year research fellow at Cambridge University. Her father dies suddenly of a heart attack. She was very close to her father and she used to go on outings with him, when he worked as a professional photographer. Helen Macdonald had been interested in falconry from childhood, and by this point in her life she is a very experienced falconer. She has read (and written one) numerous books on the subject. Following her father’s death, she buys a goshawk for £800 and sets about trying to tame her.
This book is about her training the goshawk, who she calls Mabel, and coming to terms with the loss of her father. But in my opinion it is so much more than that.
I was attracted to this book by some deep instinct. Every time I went into the book shop I kept looking at the cover and I didn’t know why. When I picked it up, it sounded like the last book I would be interested in reading, and yet, it kept calling to me. So I made it the book club choice and here we are.
Well my instincts were right. For me personally, it was not an easy book to read, but from the start I found it riveting, mesmerizing and fascinating. I don’t think I have ever read such beautiful and raw descriptions of nature anywhere before. I found the writing almost hypnotic. I would stay awake reading it till two in the morning, which if you know me, never ever happens. In saying that, as I previously mentioned, I didn’t find it an easy read and at times it was actually difficult to read, but no less enjoyable for that. So what made is so captivating?
The language is complex, original and describes the countryside around England in a way that I have never heard before. Macdonald knows every tree, every hedge and every flower she passes. Nothing escapes her eye when she is out in nature. Her descriptions astounded me.
She describes the depths of her feelings with a refreshing bluntness and honesty that I loved. Her grief for her father is so palpable, and having gone through losing my own father, there were several parts of the book where I broke down and cried with empathy and understanding.
For example, on page 150, she writes:
‘On the way home, I felt a great and simple sadness, I missed my dad. I missed him very much.’
Well that was all I needed to read to set me off, and it fitted perfectly in context, as did every word in this book, in my opinion.
There is a parallel strand to the narrative as the author describes a book she is reading by a man called T. H. White who also trained a Hawk back in the 1930s. As the author trains her own goshawk she relives the life of White and his difficulties and obsession with his own hawk. Although I wasn’t as interested in this part of the book, it works, as she comes to understand her own complexities through his experiences and draws solace from his failures and successes.
I grew fascinated by the goshawk’s actions and training. I had absolutely no idea about hawks at the start of this memoir and the descriptions of Mabel killing her prey I found very hard to stomach. It was the only part of the book I didn’t like so much, but it was still described superbly.
Sometimes you come across a book that’s a bit of a challenge. In day’s past I wouldn’t have persevered, I would have just put it down. I didn’t have to persevere at all with this book, I loved it, but I can see how some might. I would beg you to stick with it though, if only for the incredible talent the author has for language. It is simply sublime. This book will take pride of place on my bookshelf and I have no doubt it is a book I will re-read in a couple of years.