Review: H Is for Hawk

Image of large hawk on branch

I wanted to do a belated review of a memoir I bought last summer and finished late last year, Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk (Grove, currently $4.96 on Kindle).

Hard to write a short review of this gorgeous book. I’ll say that what I got out of it most were not the reflections on Helen Macdonald‘s dead father, a London journalist, which were sometimes poignant but a bit fragmented, and not the protracted musings on the strange, unconventional author of The Once and Future King, T.H. White, though I loved them, but the amazing descriptions of the author, a young academic, training her goshawk, Mabel, in the Cambridgeshire countryside.

She can contemplate Mabel tearing into a partridge or rabbit, and it’s gripping. She runs underneath through golden stubbled fields as Mabel soars above, and most of the time she’s anxious about Mabel or sure she’s doing it wrong, but there is such a beautiful dynamism to these descriptions of what is left of the English countryside (quite a lot, as it turns out). I absolutely loved that part. I felt connected to the wildness and the archaic, obsessive absurdity of what Helen was doing.

After patient months of training, I learned, the goal is to fly the hawk free, with the understanding (though not the certainty!) that it will come back to you:

Flying a hawk free is always scary. It is where you test these lines. And it’s not a thing that’s easy to do when you’ve lost trust in the world, and your heart is turned to dust.

The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge.

As she writes provocatively, “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all.”

I liked the steady care that she conveyed for Mabel, as opposed to the unhealthy power games that White played with his hawk, Gos, who finally abandoned him one stormy night. Helen, to be honest, seemed at times a somewhat miserable and neurotic person (although maybe less of an outsider than she portrays herself as), but nature has a way of bringing out the most authentic and, ultimately, powerful sides of us.

The book did take a while to read. Once I got into its rhythm, though, I was motivated to finish. I’m looking forward to reading more of Macdonald’s work.

About Gabriella West

Author of LGBT historical fiction and contemporary queer romance.
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