H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

This is quite different from any books I have read recently and perhaps for that reason I found it quite difficult to get into. It is beautifully written, no doubt about that, but it was a book I found it hard to engage with. The language is not difficult by any means but you do need to focus so it’s not a light read. It’s a book you can easily dip in and out of though, so perhaps just a few chapters at a time is the way to tackle this book. It worked for me anyway!

I am a huge fan of ospreys and follow the progress of the Scottish ospreys via blogs, webcams and have also visited a couple of the nesting sites. So I do have an interest in birds of prey and was interested in the training of a goshawk described in this book. It did make make feel a bit uneasy though. A beautiful wild bird should be flying free surely? However, I could clearly feel the deep connection that Macdonald has for goshawks in general and her affection for Mabel, her own goshawk. I found the sections about T H White the most interesting. They were as much a social history of his time as biography of this writer and goshawk owner. I expected there to be more about the death of Macdonald’s father and her grief following his sudden death. What was written on the subject was intensely moving though, particularly her description of her father’s memorial service.

I would say that this book would probably be best enjoyed by those who have an interest in birds. But given its obvious success and popularity, I could be wrong. Try it for yourself and see.


What it’s about: 

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.

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