From the age of seven Helen MacDonald was determined to become a falconer. She learned the arcane terminology and read all the classic books, including T. H. White’s tortured masterpiece, The Goshawk, which describes White’s struggle to train a hawk as a spiritual contest.
When her father dies and she is knocked sideways by grief, she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She buys Mabel for £800 on a Scottish quayside and takes her home to Cambridge. Then she fills the freezer with hawk food and unplugs the phone, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this widest of animals.
When I first picked up this book, I almost immediately set it down again.
I know the old adage about never judging a book by its cover, but for some reason, this book struck me as another Eat, Pray, Love-style biography. [Character A] goes through a [personal tragedy] and [discovers themselves] in [exotic country/obscure hobby/a new pet/a challenge they set out to do], before finally concluding what changed people they are now that they’ve overcome this struggle.
I was talking with a GoodReads friend about this and she brought up how it really sounded (from the blurb, mind you) like the author was picking up a really, notoriously difficult-to-train bird just to fill a hole in her life. What happens then, after she’s conquered this mountain of grief?
It’s not like Macdonald purchased her goshawk Mabel on a whim (if you read the book), but her obsession does come across as a little… well, fleeting. Even if she has always had a vested interest in falconry, and is hardly a neophyte, you have to wonder just… why?
Well, I guess that’s the job of a good synopsis; it gets you to ask questions and have them stick in your mind until you eventually pony up the money to see what all the fuss is about. I downloaded the e-book shortly after it won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, and while I’m glad I did, I was still a little bit underwhelmed by the whole thing.
The writing in H is For Hawk is gorgeous. MacDonald is wonderfully gifted with words, making certain passages absolutely gorgeous to read. Macdonald’s really able to make obscure subjects like the history of falconry sound absolutely fascinating, bringing in her academic interest and just how she’s using her knowledge as a coping mechanism, a regression back into a happy childhood when she had an interest in birdwatching and raptors. She’s also really able to capture the feeling of grieving and depression, and the frustration of training animals, then the joy of realising they’re finally able to perform that trick you’ve been agonising over teaching them for the past few weeks.
‘Their existence gives the lie to the thought that the wild is always something untouched by human hearts and hands. The wild can be human work.’
‘Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, bereaved, bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, to take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.’
‘[…] Imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone.’
But, I found the book fell flat after quite a while, and never quite picked itself up again. Macdonald and Mabel forge their bond, go out flying a few times, Macdonald muses over nature or an obscure tome of falconry/natural history, and then picks up Mabel and that’s the end of the chapter. I don’t want to give out spoilers here, but the ending of the book was incredibly underwhelming too; as Macdonald just returns to her mundane life.
I appreciated all the information on falconry too — it never oversaturated the book, and you can tell that Macdonald has a real passion for her hobby. My fears going into this about her just adopting a bird of prey and having no idea what to do with it were completely unfounded. I particularly liked the appendix at the back — I’m definitely going to try and pick up several of the books Macdonald brings up, including T.H. White’s The Goshawk. It’s always good when a book provides a springboard into something you personally find interesting, but have never had the opportunity to look into. Falcons, owls, etc., are my favourite birds, and my dad even bought me a raptor experience day at a shelter for my birthday… Only to realise that neither of us would be able to make it in time before I moved to university. Still, while I’m probably never going to be a falconer, it is a fascinating subject to read about.
Verdict: 3.5 stars.