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.