Review: H is for Hawk

Having read Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm, which was shortlisted for the Costa Book of the Year Award, I have now read H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald which won the top prize.

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H is for Hawk tells the experiences of Helen Macdonald, a writer, illustrator, historian and lecturer at Cambridge University in training a wild hawk. Macdonald had some advantages in this task: she was fascinated by falconry and hawks as a child, and she had experience of hunting with hawks, but she had never trained a wild hawk to hunt. There was a major disadvantage: her much-loved father, a renowned photographer, had just died suddenly when she acquired the hawk for £800 from a breeder in Northern Ireland. Much of the book deals with the intense commitment and frustrations which the falconer must endure over the lengthy process of winning the trust of a wild predatory animal so that it works together with the falconer in killing wild game. The goshawk in the book has personality: feral, proud and beautiful, unpredictable, iconic. One learns, incidentally, that Macdonald is a scholar, an intelligent and sensitive person, but the author also exposes her vulnerabilities: in particular, her crippling grief over the loss of her father. In parallel with the story of Macdonald’s goshawk, she tells the story of T H White, now deceased, a dedicated, but somewhat eccentric falconer and the author of The Goshawk. We learn of his mistakes and his anguish as he tries to train a goshawk. So this book operates at several levels: a present, objective account of the training of a wild hawk; there is a past, reported account of the training of a different hawk; there are psychological explorations of both the author and her role model, T H White. This may sound rather complex, and, in a way, it is, but Macdonald weaves it all together beautifully so that it is quite natural.

The writing, in style and language is exquisite. In particular, the descriptions of natural settings and the behaviour of the hawk are breath-taking. For example: “. . . she (the hawk) sees something through the trees, out there on the other side of the hedge. Her pupils grow wide. She snakes her neck and flattens her crown, and the tiny grey hair-feathers around her beak and eyes crinkle into a frown that I’ve learned means there’s something there.” And: “The fields are shorn, yellowed into stalky, rabbit-grazed sward spotted with foraging rooks.”

H is for Hawk is clearly a major labour of love. This love and its result: a durable classic about nature, surely merited the Costa Award.

As a child, I was very interested in falconry; I read everything I could lay my hands on the subject – even flirting with the idea of obtaining a hawk. For me, H is for Hawk has a special resonance, but I suspect that some potential readers may be put off by a book on falconry. For those potential readers, I would say, “This isn’t just a book about falconry. It’s a book about nature, the human condition, grief, joy, life and death.”

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