H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

IMG_1398 I have no desire to train a hawk. But then I have no desire to let myself take the place at the guillotine of the husband of the unrequited love of my life during the French Revolution; nor do I wish to fake my death in Missouri and frame my adulterous husband for murder. The wonderful thing about books is that they make you believe, for a brief period, that these – and many other things – might be a worthwhile pursuit. So it is with Helen Macdonald’s memoir H Is For Hawk. Charles Dickens and Gillian Flynn (see above) know all about taking things a little too far in fiction, but Macdonald eventually admits that her real life, too, might have strayed a little too close to the bone. She is training a goshawk (Mabel) in a bid to reconcile herself to her beloved father’s sudden death. Hawks are seductive: ‘Her eyes can follow the wingbeats of a bee as easily as ours follow the wingbeats of a bird.’ By forming an alliance with this wonder of nature, Macdonald believes she can retreat safely into the occult, discrete world of the self: the irony, of course, is that to make sense of bereavement she chooses to ingratiate herself with a creature who’s sole purpose in life is murder. Gradually, she comes to the conclusion that humans are designed for being with other humans, rather than twisting the necks of the rabbits that one of nature’s most ruthless killing machines has caught. Macdonald is more rabbit than hawk, she soon understands. Entwined with her narrative of loss is the complex story of T.H. White’s attempt, 70-odd years earlier, to train his own goshawk. It’s hard to reconcile White’s tortured thoughts (sadism, especially) with the wise, sensitive author of The Once And Future King. But there you go – never meet your heroes and all that. Macdonald’s father’s memorial service goes well. Her kindly GP prescribes her anti-depressants. The drugs start to work. Things are brighter. Mabel has helped. ‘The world she lives in is not mine,’ writes Macdonald near the beginning, in wonder. By the end she realises that the goshawk was never the answer she was really seeking.

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4 thoughts on “H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

  1. Love this review! Read the book over Christmas, and it made a big impression on me. Whilst I don’t think I would say that it was one of my favourite books, it is definitely one of those books that lingers and that you remember. Your review brought it all back and reminded me how well the book was written!!

    • Thank you very much for your kind words – and I’m sorry to reply to them only months later. No excuses. I can see myself going back to H is for Hawk in years to come. There’s such a lot in it.

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