H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald  Jonathan Cape, 2014

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald
Jonathan Cape, 2014

I don’t know where to start with Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. I loved it and urge everyone to read it. It’s a book that moved me, it’s a book I admire for the absolutely wonderful writing, it’s a book that I believe is fully deserved of all its awards success (it won the Samuel Johnson prize, won Costa’s Biography award and later the Costa Book of the Year) and the hype it’s received on blogs and in the press.

When Helen Macdonald was a child, she was obsessed with the old art of falconry. She read books on the subject, she drew detailed pictures of hawks, she spent hours looking for the birds with her father. Years later, when her father dies suddenly and unexpectedly, Helen becomes determined to train a goshawk – a bird known for being difficult to train. And so her life alters. She fills her freezer with food for the hawk, she unplugs the phone and withdraws into a world that is inhabited only by her and the hawk, Mabel. Yet H is for Hawk is not simply a record of Helen’s extraordinary journey with her hawk, but an exploration of grief and loss, as well as a biography and analysis of the novelist T. H. White, whose book on hawk training Helen read as a child.

Helen Macdonald’s writing is absolutely gorgeous throughout H is for Hawk – I think I’d read anything she writes, on any subject. It’s vivid in a way that I haven’t read in a long time, perhaps ever before. The way she describes the smallest of details is beautifully tangible and makes the scene simply appear, not in front of me, but around me – I’m there. I can feel the hawk’s weight as she stands on my arm, I can see our world from the hawk’s view as Helen imagines it when Mabel soars above the trees. It’s wonderful. One of my favourite passages of the book, and the part which has stayed with me the longest, is near the beginning when Macdonald describes her first sighting of the hawk she is to take home (p. 53-54). It is stunning and quite took my breath away. Her writing is poetical, lyrical and insightful, making the book a joy to read. There’s a vibrancy to Macdonald’s writing which means I didn’t want to stop reading.

H is for Hawk is so much more than simply an account of Helen training the hawk. It’s a book exploring grief and loss, life and death, nature, and what it means to be human and animal. It’s a multifaceted book which deftly deals with many difficult subjects. Before reading the book, I’d wondered how I’d find the sections about T. H. White; I wondered how it would fit in with the rest of the book. But it works very well, with the insightful exploration of T. H. White fitting in seamlessly with her own struggles and joys in training Mabel and dealing with the grief of losing her father.

What also struck me most about the book, is Macdonald’s exploration of her own feelings she faces after the death of her father. She confronts her emotions head on, and she’s incredibly honest about them.

Overall, H is for a Hawk is a beautifully written and touching book that I can’t recommend enough. I feel that I could say a lot more, but I think it would possibly spoil it for those of you who haven’t read it yet. I want to read more non fiction this year and I realise that books like H is for Hawk are, for now, the type of non-fiction books I should be reading. So does anyone have any recommendations? Have you read H is for Hawk? What did you think?


22 thoughts on “H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

  1. I’ll have to purchase this sooner. Everyone have written great reviews. I think you may like “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness” by Susannah Cahalan. Great memoir, the audio narration was well done. It is being featured for a movie.

  2. I’ve not read it yet, but I have picked it up based I think on a review by Jacqui among others. I’m delighted to see you praising it so highly. Fleur is right, I’ve rarely seen something so universally lauded and yet I don’t smell hype here. Definitely one to look forward to.

    On a possibly related note, have you read JA Baker’s The Peregrine?

  3. So many people have loved this book, but I’ve continued to be put off by the premise of it. I think I need to forget what it is about and come to it in a few months time, because from what you’ve said I would enjoy it. It sounds Joan Didion-esc.

    • I’d recommend doing that – if I hadn’t have heard about the book on blogs etc I probably wouldn’t have picked it up because I normally read fiction. But I’m so glad I read this. I hope you enjoy it!

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  5. Pingback: I’ll read anything – if it’s good enough. H is for Hawk is better than good. | Adventures in Biography

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