Book Review: “H Is For Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

“H is for Hawk” is currently causing an uproar in the British literary world, achieving mountains of acclaim from critics and fellow writers on both sides of the pond. I first found out about it through BrainPickings, a weekly digest of assembled blog posts that thematically explores famous thinkers and works through the use of quotes, relevant artwork, and a lot of cross-posting. I have an on-again off-again relationship with BrainPickings, which I find by turns astonishingly profound and helpful, and by turns trite and repetitive. But Maria Popova’s praise for “H is for Hawk” caught my eye. She writes of the book:

“Every once in a while — perhaps thrice a lifetime, if one is lucky — a book comes along so immensely and intricately insightful, so overwhelming in beauty, that it renders one incapable of articulating what it’s about without contracting its expansive complexity, flattening its dimensional richness, and stripping it of its splendor.”

High praise! Naturally, I set about finding a copy.

The cover features a quote from the Economist, which describes the book as “one part memoir, one part gorgeous evocation of the natural world, and one part literary meditation.” It’s really impossible to see the book as anything other than a three-fold exploration. Ostensibly, the book’s beginning is the death of Macdonald’s father, a journalist and photographer. Certainly that is where the conflict begins: Macdonald falls into a deep depression, and finds herself inexorably drawn to the wildness and wilderness involved in training a young goshawk.


But in some sense, the book began long before that. Macdonald writes of her childhood fascination with falconry of all kinds. She obsessed over falconry the way I obsessed over horses: learning everything there was to know about bird anatomy, caring for and training the creatures, hunting with falcons, and the history of falconry as told through myriad British men through the ages.

One such man happened to be T.H. White, famed author of The Once And Future King. He wrote other books, of course, one of which happened to be a narrative about his own retreat into nature via an ill-fated attempt at taming a goshawk. A young Macdonald obsessed over this book. And when her father died and her internal world was abruptly thrown into chaos, she felt some connection with White, and was drawn to his story.

And so the book is a three-part tale: Macdonald’s trauma and her attempt to use the goshawk – Mabel is her name – to heal herself; Macdonald’s insights, both intuitive and laden with scholarly precision, into the world of hawks and falconry, from historical and etymological information to detailed notes on how hawks perceive and relate to the world; and finally, White’s relationship with his own hawk, Gos, and why White’s journey inspired, and ultimately diverged from, Helen’s.

I think in part BrainPickings set me up for failure: the book was excellent, but it was five-star excellent, not seven-star excellent, not once-in-a-lifetime excellent. The book is never boring, but I did not race through it as other reviewers said they did. I walked through, stolidly, enjoying the moments of light and of cheer, the moments when Helen describes playing catch with Mabel, surprised and delighted at her hawk’s playful side, and pausing at the darkness and moments of weight, the passages when she cries herself to sleep on the couch and cannot seem to speak to other human beings. Astonishingly unsentimental for a book that is, essentially, a meditation about life and death, it was an introspective book, not one to be rushed through, not a page turner. And while there are countless moments of quiet beauty, and Macdonald’s descriptions of the English countryside she and her hawk hunt and train in are exquisite, it never quite lifted me into the transcendental, the tactile connection between man and earth that other authors have achieved.

One thing I loved was the author’s impressive command of vocabulary. I admired this in the same distant way I admire Cormac McCarthy for the same ability, and Hemingway for his spare prose. Her use of uncommon words never felt overbearing or verbose for the sake of it. She also uses words in new ways – as descriptions I never would have thought of – and they fit perfectly, never detracting from the flow.

This summer lunch feels deeply unreal. Shadows of damask and silver, a photogravure in an album, something from Agatha Christine, from Evelyn Waugh, from another time. But the wasps are real. They are here, and they are present. So is the hawk, the sun at their centre. And me? I do not know. I feel hollow and unhoused, an airy, empty wasps’ nest, a thing made of chewed paper after the frosts have murdered the life within. (130)

Her scholarly background and childish imagination also gives her an approach to the history of falconry that connects us to a larger tradition, an expanse far greater than just her and Mabel and White and Gos.

I had, as a child, bought into that imagined world of tweed-clad Victorian falconers, where death was visceral and ever-present and hedged with ceremonial formalities. When I watched those men with goshawks put the dead pheasant in the bag all those years ago I saw a kind of ease that bespoke centuries of social privilege and sporting confidence.

I loved these lines of connection, lines Macdonald brings to light effortlessly throughout the book, partly because of the obvious symbolism in falconry: her hawk is literally bound to her by creances, lines like leashes that keep the hawk close at hand in the early stages of training, if I’ve got it right. Lines that Macdonald illustrates by drawing parallels between hawks and war planes in the World Wars, by talking about falconry in America and Kazakhstan and Arabia. Lines she illuminates by noting the etymology of the word game as in game bird, and poaching, and comparing her love of hawks to her father’s love of airplanes. In everything there are lines of connection, if only you remember to look – a theme that runs throughout the book and is perfectly encapsulated in a moment when she and a friend are flying Mabel, and he points out the lines of gossamer threads in the grass at their feet, which Helen has neglected because she is blind to everything but the hawk.

But the connections are always there, even when we ignore them or cannot see them.

This will certainly draw comparisons to Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Both memoirs by women in a largely male-dominated field, both born out of grief and trauma and depression, both taking place on the knife’s edge of the line drawn between man and animal, man and wild, man and earth. I haven’t read Wild yet, but it’s soon up on my list. I’ll let you know my thoughts.

I am not usually a reader of memoirs, but this one might have turned me to the genre. Usually I find my stories in more vivid, hallucinatory, imaginary worlds, but this one is clearly drawn enough to bring you into England’s ancient forests and dark mythologies, while rooted firmly in this century. The way each personality interweaves through the narrative – Gos, White, Mabel, Helen, and, towards the end, Helen’s father, too – has reminded me of the power of real life stories as well as fictional ones.

Recommended for: anyone who enjoys great writing, anyone who enjoys memoirs, anyone fascinated by the crossroads of wildness and humanness.

Get your copy here:
Amazon Kindle
Amazon UK