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Review: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald


H is for Hawk

Usually, I have a fairly good memory when it comes to where and when it was that I bought a particular book. I remember buying Killing Me Softly by Nicci French at a bric-a-brac store in Brighton’s South Laines many, many moons ago; I remember happening upon a copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany in a charity shop in Horsham and falling in love with it from the very first page. I remember the books I’ve been gifted for Christmas and birthdays; and the countries in which I’ve been when I’ve bought them; from The Monk Who Sold His Ferarri, which I bought in the bright lights of Denpesar airport when en route to Singapore, to the copy of The Corrections I purchased when perusing the shelves of downtown LA’s The Last Bookstore.

But try as I might – and try I have done – I cannot remember for the life of me at what point Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk made its way onto my bookshelves. What I do know, however, is that it’s been sitting patiently, and waiting to be read for a while now. And having been recommended it by a number of friends and fellow bookworms since its publication and consequential win of the Costa Prize in 2014, when in need of a new read last week, I decided to finally give it a go.

Written in the wake of her father’s death and the subsequent all-consuming grief that followed, H is for Hawk is Cambridge professor Helen Macdonald’s moving memoir of coping with the loss of her photojournalist father. A book that blends nature writing with a tale of bereavement, Helen Macdonald has managed to fuse the two very different genres quite beautifully. As a professor of both English and ornithology (specifically, falconry) MacDonald weaves a memoir ripe with poignant prose as she recounts her attempt at raising a goshawk.

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The descriptions of her Goshawk, Mabel, are so vivid that I can see her in all her regal glory and the memoir is cleverly interspersed with a detailed portrait of the patience and care it takes to train a hawk. Within the book, Macdonald also writes a semi-biographical depiction of the author T.H. White, whose book, The Goshawk is both as inspiration and guide for Macdonal’s own training of Mabel.

An original blend of memoir, biography and nature writing, H is for Hawk is a moving tale about the healing power of nature, and the redemption, the recovery and the way back to her father in communion with her mourning that the author found through raising Mabel the goshawk.

About H is for Hawk

Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.

When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life.

Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.

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About Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald is a writer, poet, historian, illustrator and naturalist. She’s worked as a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, as a professional falconer, and in raptor research and conservation projects across Eurasia. She is an affiliate of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. She lives in Suffolk, UK.

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2 comments on “Review: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald”

  1. I’ve had this book on my shelf for a few months and must get around to it – I’ve heard such great things and your review has sparked my intrigue again. I had a recommendation to read ‘The Goshawk’ by T H White as a companion to this one, as she references a lot of the things from that book – perhaps one for you to try? Lindsi xx

    1. Hi Lindsi, thanks for stopping by! She does mention The Goshawk a lot throughout the book, so I’d definitely like to read it at some point. Another one for the ever growing TBR pile! xo

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