Book Review: H is for Hawk

review by Gene Walz, guest writer 

H is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald

Already a bestseller in England and winner of several prestigious book prizes, including book of the year, H Is for Hawk is Helen Macdonald’s mesmerizing memoir of how not to deal with grief.

Faced with the sudden, devastating death of her father, Macdonald tries to manage her pain by purchasing and training a young goshawk. Many people deal with bereavement by immersing themselves in their work. But this seems impossibly quirky. Crazy ambitious.

Macdonald has trained falcons from the age of eleven and written a terrific book about them, Falcon. But goshawks are different birds entirely. In Macdonald’s words: they’re “murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious and foreign.”

Her book therefore is uniquely multifaceted: a “misery memoir” combined with an austringer’s diary (austringer being the title for a goshawk trainer). Both of these strands are presented in vivid detail– clear, frank, evocative and thorough.

The challenge of successfully raising a huge (60 cms and more), difficult raptor by a damaged woman (falconry being a notoriously male-dominated sport, “a boy’s game”) forms the backbone of this memoir. Can she do it? Will it just increase her anxiety and stress?

If she can’t do it, if the hawk bolts or dies, will she be plunged deeper into despair?

The spiritual journey to emotional recovery has its many ups and downs. Macdonald breaks into tears and rages at odd, unexpected times. She can’t seem to control her body, crashing her car or stumbling clumsily into things. At one point she becomes so isolated and fixated on her hawk that she realizes she has gone to the edge of being human and past it. She is smart enough to get help from a doctor who prescribes anti-depressants.

The story of the training of the goshawk is also a rollercoaster ride. It’s both a first-hand step-by-step guidebook and a thrilling, suspense-jammed narrative told in crisp, richly-observant prose.

Macdonald has to learn to be invisible to the hawk. She walks it, marching hours with the hawk sitting on her gloved fist. She names it Mabel and teaches it to respond, affixing a small bell to its tail so she knows where it is when it gets away. She slowly expands its range away from her, all the while tethered with longer and longer jesses (thin, leather leashes). Each step is more and more nerve-wracking.

This part of the book introduces all the arcane terminology and fulsome history of falconry, as well as all the classic books. But this falconry lore is integrated so well, with such passion and verve that it’s never dull.

Chief among the falconry classics and hugely influential on Macdonald is T.H. White’s 1951 book The Goshawk. White is the author of The Once and Future King, the still popular retelling of the King Arthur legend on which the musical Camelot is based.

White learned his falconry from an ancient manuscript, and he was excruciatingly bad at it. Training his hawk named Gos became a savage battle of wills, an almost spiritual contest. In the end things went horribly, painfully awry.

Gos’s battles with his master and White’s tortured life constitute the third part of Macdonald’s genre-busting triple narrative. She braids this strand in very strategically. White’s mistakes and failures, all described in captivating prose, are introduced just before Macdonald’s own counter-pointed experiences. Will she make the same tragic mistakes? Will her more careful and informed work also end in failure? Can she equal or top her sad mentor’s literary achievements?

In fact, Macdonald outdoes White as both an austringer and a chronicler. Of all the books on birds and their intimate relationships with people (and there are dozens and dozens of them, from A Wing and a Prayer to A Kestrel for a Knave to The Snow Goose to There’s an Owl in My Shower), this one’s top of the heap.

H Is for Hawk is gripping, humorous, painful, poetic, philosophical and psychologically (of humans and hawks) illuminating. It’s a must-read for birders and non-birders alike.

Macdonald calls the goshawk “the birder’s dark grail,” rarely seen and fondly remembered. Her book is a holy grail book — as exciting and memorable as a glimpse at a goshawk in full wing chasing a pheasant.

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