In November, we decided at book group to read H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald – it was suggested by a member of the group who read it last December after receiving a copy for her Secret Santa present and enjoyed it. I knew very little about the book when I started reading it, only that is was an autobiographical account of owning and training a hawk. This is true, and to be more accurate, it is about owning and training a Goshawk. However, alongside this, the novel is about the author’s feelings of loss and grief after the death of her father; it is about her relationship with Mabel (the Goshawk); and it is about T.H. White, author of ‘The Goshawk’ first published in 1951. The mixture of all these elements leads to a fascinating read.
After a lifetime obsession with falconry, Helen Macdonald decides to buy a Goshawk, shortly after her father’s death. Emotionally vulnerable, she finds herself in Scotland to meet a man whom shall sell her Mabel. Mabel is a young Goshawk and the book then describes the author’s first year training the hawk for hunting. The descriptions, anecdotes, and intricacies of Mabel and her training are quite fascinating and written with a detail rarely found; a detail that is not tiresome but still informative with a touch of flair. Mabel is a hunter and killer, a dangerous predator which the author translates to the reader as beauty. Reading about the way in which the bird holds herself, her stoicism; how she glides and flies with precision and natural finesse; how her personality penetrates through from the hunter she is; all of this detail is a delight. Just as the author grows with Mabel, learns the craft of hawking with her, and makes a companion of this Goshawk, the reader is invited to do so at the same time. Triumphs and failures are equally explored, and emotionally the reader is with Macdonald the whole way.
Interspersed in this story is a stripped back biography of T.H. White; White had trained and written a manual of sorts of how to train a Goshawk (unsuccessfully). White is also an interesting but troubled man who wrote ‘The Once and Future King’ series of novels which includes ‘The Sword in the Stone’, later adapted by Disney in 1963 as their 18th feature length animation. Although I am not really sure exactly what this adds to the overall book, it definitely adds something. White’s story is investigated through the training of Mabel, and the author has been influenced to a degree by White after reading his book at a young age. There is also an element of the author reading and deconstructing White’s ‘The Goshawk’ to see how not to train Mabel, and in a sense feel a little better about the way in which she handles the situation.
The final thread to this book is how the author deals with her own feelings after the death of her father. Although purchasing and training Mabel is part of her reaction to the loss she has suffered, the book also explores feelings of grief and the way in which people deal with it. This vein that runs through the book is a little more subtle, yet it is the part of the book that impacted upon me most. I can’t say that I ‘enjoyed’ this part of the book, as it is not something to enjoy or bring about feelings of happiness. I do think that grief and loneliness is the core to Helen Macdonald’s story.
Overall, I think that H is for Hawk is a fantastic book; heartfelt and heart-breaking, I didn’t want it to end. This is a book that lingers in the mind long after finishing and is definitely one of the best books I have read this year. I would wholly recommend this book to anyone, a real treasure that I believe will have an impact on any reader.