H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

Some time after her father’s sudden death, English writer Helen Macdonald decided to train a female goshawk, who she named Mabel. Though experienced in falconry, Macdonald had never trained a goshawk, a bird with a reputation for being difficult. H is for Hawk explores the emotional territory of her grief as well as the emotional territory involved with training this hawk to trust her. Macdonald’s book also is partly biographical, as she recounts the life and falconry of author T.H. White.

I was glad that Macdonald was an experienced falconer, as it reassured me that there wasn’t anything “stunt-like” about her training the goshawk. She is able to explain the details and history of falconry in a way that has been digested through her own lifetime of experience.

There is a lot to love about her writing. I liked this quote in particular, which I think conveyed the nature of her grief:

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.

Macdonald also shares some great vignettes from her training of Mabel. I liked the story of her conversation with a man from Kazakhstan, who is reminded of his home country as he looks at Macdonald’s goshawk.

Macdonald is fond of descriptive passages with rich vocabulary. It can be quite beautiful, but sometimes it tipped over into being too much for me. I was reading the book on my Kindle and came across a landscape description that included the phrase “the argillaceous shimmer of tinder-fine clay.” Unfamiliar with the word “argillaceous”, I looked up the definition, and found it meant “clay-like” or “containing clay” – a pretty redundancy. It was instances like that where the writing became a little too ornamental for my tastes.

I struggled with the passages about T.H. White. I hadn’t realized they would comprise so much of the book. Once I realized that H is for Hawk was almost a dual narrative between Macdonald’s story and T.H. White’s, I tried to adjust my expectations accordingly. But I just was not very interested in White’s story, and these passages often seemed like retellings of his book The Goshawk and the journals he wrote about his falconry attempt. I started off the book thinking I was going to love H is for Hawk, but the T. H. White sections really dragged down my overall reading experience.

I can totally see why others loved it though, because it is a finely written book and others may find T. H. White as fascinating as Macdonald does.

Excerpt from others’ reviews:

BooksPlease – “This a book unlike any other that I’ve read, about wildness, grief and mourning, and obsession, which made it heavy reading for me.”

Memories from Books – “[The writing] captures the fierceness of the hawk itself; the depth of Helen MacDonald’s connection with the hawk; her despair; her single-minded focus on the hawk that deflects her grief, and the occasional moments of peace.”

Olduvai Reads – “Is it memoir? Nature writing? Literary? It’s a little of everything and it is brilliant.”

Also, I liked this review by dovegreyreader scribbles, who wasn’t getting on with the book in her first couple of tries, but ended up really connecting with it.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

  1. I have this on hold. I have a suspicion I’ll really like it!

  2. I have been hearing good things about this. I must check it out at some point!

  3. Nan

    I’ll bookmark this page, and come back and read it when I’ve read the book. I do own it, and it awaits me on the shelf.

  4. I didn’t quite connect with this, unfortunately. I didn’t love her writing, the details of falconry training are actually rather disturbing, and for some reason I couldn’t get over that she ended up buying someone else’s hawk. Someone else’s hawk! That’s very iniquitous I think!

    • I wasn’t sure how to talk about my mixed feelings about falconry, so I didn’t mention it my review, but there were times where I realized that I just wasn’t quite on board. It’s been several months since I read it and I completely forgot that she bought a hawk intended for someone else.

  5. I just finished this book yesterday and thought it was beautiful and compelling, although I share your feelings about the T.H. While sections. I found it difficult to have sympathy for him, even though Macdonald does go out of her way to emphasize the difficult circumstances in his life, and I didn’t find much connection between his emotional journey and hers. Other than that, though, her writing style drew me in to the rest of her story (aside from some of the hunting scenes that I found difficult to come to terms with).

    • I didn’t see a strong emotional connection either other than what was on the surface: both people with personal struggles trying to train goshawks. It was also hard to read about how incompetently T.H. White dealt with his hawk. I think at one point, he was even dragging the hawk.

  6. aartichapati

    I have heard so much about this book and how the author talks about her grief and loss. She is coming to Chicago soon to speak about the book as part of the humanities festival. I have debated going but as I don’t think I’ll finish the book before she comes, I think I’ll wait to see the video they post afterwards 🙂

    • That’s nice that they record the speakers! I know they do the same at the National Book Festival, and I haven’t really taken advantage of it. I wonder what sort of questions Macdonald gets in the Q&A.

  7. I must say, Christy, this is the first review that has made me want to give this book a try–and I’ve seen a lot of reviews of this book! It was kind of one of the “it books” of the past year, wouldn’t you say?

    • Especially with “it” books, I think sometimes there’s a review that just ends up being the tipping point. It’s funny that it was mine as my opinion was a little mixed. “H is for Hawk” definitely has been one of the more omnipresent nonfiction titles recently and that striking cover certainly helps its cause.

      • I always appreciate an honest and intelligent review, even if it is ambivalent or mixed. So many of the more mainstream reviews I read just seem to be “all for” or “all against,” if you know what I’m saying. Very dull to read. Thank goodness for lit blogs!

  8. Totally agree about T.H. White. I wasn’t expecting it, and it made the book sound more like a master’s thesis in literature than the memoir I thought it was. In terms of expectations about a relationship between a person and a bird, I much preferred “Wesley the Owl” by Stacey O’Brien, which I loved.

    • Yes, it did seem to have a scholarly fervor about it, which makes sense considering her profession but wasn’t exactly what intrigued me. I just read the description of Wesley the Owl and it sounds amazing. I have added it to my to-read list. Thanks!

  9. I’ve read many rave reviews of this book, but yours is the one that made me place a hold on it at the library. (Thank you!)

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