H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: A review

H Is for HawkH Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Helen Macdonald, as she tells it in H Is for Hawk, was an awkward, unlovely, unpopular child. But though her life in the outside world may not have been so auspicious, she had a rich interior life that allowed her to escape from all that. She had an obsession: birds.

She was fascinated by birds in general, but the ones which held the strongest attraction for her were the raptors, the magnificent killing machines of the avian world. She read everything she could find about the birds and about humans working with those magnificent killing machines and training them in the sport of falconry. Her most passionate desire was to be a falconer when she grew up.

Helen, unlike many of us, had parents who did not discourage her obsession. They accepted it as normal and encouraged her in it. Her father, a professional news photographer, took her into the fields and woods to observe birds and to look for raptors. He taught her to focus as through a lens, in order to put herself outside the frame and maintain distance from the subject.

Helen was especially close to her father. He was the much-loved, much-adored center of her life, the person who gave her her grounding in the world. When he collapsed and died unexpectedly on a London street while working, Helen's world also collapsed. She had lost her center and didn't know how to find her way. She was floundering. She retreated to her world of obsession.

She had long worked with hawks in various types of situations, but she had never owned one or trained one on her own. At length, she decides that this is what she must do. She will train a hawk. But not just any hawk - a Goshawk, one of the most high-spirited and difficult to train birds of prey.

She receives her bird, which she names Mabel, and just like that, she has found a new center for her being. The training begins.

As she works with Mabel, she rereads an old book by T.H. White called The Goshawk. It recounts his experience in trying to tame and train a Goshawk. He had no idea what he was doing and his "training" methods were more like torture. Macdonald is appalled by his book but also mesmerized by it and by what it tells her about the man.

She reflects on the man and his life as an outsider, a repressed homosexual, a sadist. She ruminates on the connections between the man's personal life, the influence of World War II, his experience with the Goshawk, and how all of that came together to impact and shape his writing about the tales of King Arthur in The Sword in the Stone. She weaves all of these topics together and they become the prism through which she looks at her own life and her experience of grief, and, in the end, she pulls it all together and begins to make sense of it so that she can get on with that life.

This is a highly praised and much-honored book and, in my opinion, it deserves all of that. It is an amazing, almost unclassifiable book. It is a memoir and yet at times it reads with the urgency of the best fiction. I wouldn't necessarily describe it as a page-turner though. It is slow in parts, but there's nothing wrong with that. It just gives one time for reflection, time to absorb what one is reading.

My only quibble with the book was a certain irritation and impatience with Macdonald herself. She completely gives herself up to grieving. She's able to do that because she is single with no family depending on her. She does have a mother (the widow of her father who died) and a brother and yet she is so self-absorbed with how the death of this man has affected her that she seems to have no understanding or empathy for what it has meant to these other people who loved him. Her grief insulates her and cuts her off from other human relationships. In the depths of mourning, she is as much a loner as T.H. White ever was.

In the end, this is a book about Nature, the human and the avian kind, and about the profound and complex relationships that can develop between two species. I could never be a falconer, because I believe wild birds should be free. In fact, it distresses me to see an animal caged or tied up. But there is no discounting the effect that working with Mabel had on Helen Macdonald. At a time when she was spinning out of control, it helped her to find her way back, get her life back on track. H Is for Hawk. H is also for healing. 

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  1. Great review, Dorothy! For some reason I thought you had already reviewed this book when it came out. I must have seen it in another blog.
    Being about raptors, I think I would enjoy it.

    1. It is a good book, very well-written, almost lyrical at times.

  2. I agree with Carmen. Wonderful review. While I was reading it, I thought about The Sword in the Stone. (I have read all the books of The Once and Future King and they are wonderful!) [http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2006/01/books-read-from-1940-part-six.html] And then that comes up in your review. I also thought of Yeat's poem The Second Coming and the way Joni Mitchell used that in a song. And of course Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Yours is the first review that made me want to read Helen Macdonald's book.

    1. I think you might enjoy it, Judy. T.H. White is ever-present as Macdonald wrestles with her grief as White wrestled with his Goshawk, and she draws many lessons from his experience and from his books, including The Sword in the Stone.


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