The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 28 March 2017

H is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald

There is a subgenre of non-fiction that involves a narrator undertaking an unusual, difficult or bizarre task -- say hiking the Appalachian Trail, climbing Mt Everest, building a house, running a marathon -- and that task is portrayed as a metaphor for an event in the writer's life and the recovery from it. This kind of journey is common in memoirs, and it is the extent to which we relate to the writer's efforts that we become engaged or enjoy their story. In other words, some of these books are better than others. Helen Macdonald received accolades for this book (and its terrific cover design), and rightly so. It is a bumpy and historically rich ride through her experience of training a goshawk while enduring the sudden grief of her father's death.

Macdonald had long been fascinated by birds of prey. Since childhood she wanted to own and train a bird to hunt together in the rolling English landscape. By the time this story opens, she has had long experience raising and training falcons and hawks, but hadn't yet undertaken the training of a goshawk, a bird considered more of a challenge, more wild than other raptors. And when the story opens, Macdonald's father, a well-regarded journalistic photographer, dies suddenly on the streets of London. The author's shock and grief are complete, and she quickly descends into a reclusive mourning, like a wounded animal, or bird, hiding from the world, hoping to heal. In this state of despair, she undertakes to adopt and train a female goshawk she names Mabel.

Giving the story some historical depth, Macdonald looks back upon the extensive (and very male-dominated) literature of falconry. The history goes back thousands of years, but she eventually settles on early 20th century author T. H. White, who wrote The Once and Future King along with his own memoir of training a goshawk. His story is full of pain and despair, too, though his own has to do with his ill-fitting personality in a strict world with rules of gender and identity. He takes out a lot of his frustration on his hawk, and it is painful to read of his desperation and the uncomprehending suffering the bird experiences at his hand. Macdonald, thankfully, is a lot more enlightened in her relationship with Mabel. There is a fierce beauty in the bird's absorption in the landscape and her deadly skill in hunting small mammals and "game" birds. Macdonald becomes absorbed in the life of her hawk, retreating further in that speechless world. Along the way, she reflects on her father's life and his death. It is a somber journey broken only by her wise decision to finally seek professional help. The miracle of chemistry helps her return to the world. And though she regrets the resulting wider gap between her and Mabel, she understands that we live on the same planet but in different worlds. The book is downbeat, as are so many books about grieving. But there is fascination in the life of a falconer, and in the history of T. H. White. The reader might feel a bit wrung out by this book, but it has its rewards in its depiction of the nature of the goshawk, and the universe it inhabits.

(For this work, Macdonald was awarded the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize (The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction).)

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See also: [H is for Homicide by Sue Grafton]