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H is for Hawk - Helen MacDonald - Book Review

By henrymartinhm, May 4 2015 07:28PM

I wanted to read ‘H is for Hawk’ ever since I saw the jacket with the artwork by Chris Wormell. One morning, browsing Waterstones Picadilly, I decided to purchase a copy for my mother for her birthday. It was a signed hardback edition, which I thought would make a nice gift. I, of course, would read it first. Just to make sure it was suitable for parents. In this case, I decided that the book probably wouldn’t be my mother’s cup of tea/ type of bird, which was ok, because I knew a few pages in that I was going to keep it. I bought my mother something else instead. Something less hawky.

Sadly, my jacket was damaged when I tried to remove the ‘Costa Award’ sticker on the front. I’m surprised Waterstones or Costa or Jonathan Cape didn’t do a test on the glue strength of the sticker in order to limit tears (mine and the books). Maybe they did do the test, and I was unlucky. But now I have a torn cover on a signed book that I really like, so yeah #bookfail whoever is responsible. Feel free to send me a new jacket.

Anyway. The book.

Ostensibly ‘H is for Hawk’ is about a woman who purchases and trains a goshawk in the aftermath of her father’s death. It’s a book about grief and grieving, but it’s also a book about addiction, depression, failure, dependency, and human and animal nature. Structurally, the action moves between MacDonald’s life in ‘present day’ Cambridgeshire and the world of the writer T.H. White in the 1930’s-40’s.

White is the author of ‘The Sword in the Stone’ and ‘The Goshawk,’ books that had captured MacDonald’s imagination from a young age. By exploring the world of White, his failure to train one particular goshawk, and his sexual and emotional turmoil, MacDonald sets up an interesting counter melody to her own composition on grief and hard-won success in training her own bird, Mabel.

I say ‘ostensibly,’ above, because ‘H is for Hawk,’ just like a bird, soars towards and around different things. It’s a testament to MacDonald’s research and life-long interest in falconry that she can glide so effortlessly between writing about, let’s say, fascism and falconry in The Third Reich to present day xenophobia and British nationalism. ‘Old England,’ she writes on page 265,

‘is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque, engravings. It is a place imagined by people and people do not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change is too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead….

…I wish we could not fight for landscapes that remind us of who we think we are. I wish we would fight instead, for landscapes buzzing and glowing with life in all its variousness.’

This quote, which comes towards the end of the book is just one kind of summation or philosophising that is common throughout. I find MacDonald’s reflections more than worthy ones. They are fresh and detailed, and it’s evident the author has dedicated time to refining them. Her writing too, as one would expect of a ‘nature writer,’ is equally sharp. I should say, I'm not accustomed to reading in this genre. Occasionally the names to trees, shrubs and cloud formations are lost on me – but they sound pretty. More than pretty.

For all I’ve said about the deviations the book takes (White, Fascism etc), ‘H is for Hawk’ is still very much a book about a woman training a hawk. The majority of the book is written in painstaking detail, from the first moment MacDonald sees her hawk, to the first kill the bird makes. The detail the author goes into is forensic. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the animal is so central to the action (nope, never read 'Moby Dick', and in 'The Old Man and the Sea' the marlin isn't on everypage). At least I haven't read a book like this where Mabel is described on every other page, but never in a dull-feathered way. The action between MacDonald and Mabel is filmic – full of close-ups (the bramble-torn palms of the author; the dilating pupils of Mabel) establishing shots (the town of Cambridge, an urban pond surrounded by countryside), or extreme close-ups (rabbit blood melting snow). There is genuine tension between the falcon and the falconer. Mabel throws strops and do does MacDonald.

For most of the book, the author is trying to join Mabel in the world of the wild – seeing it as Mabel sees it – hunting with Mabel – sleeping with Mabel – trespassing with Mabel. It’s not a balanced relationship. The author knows this. This is one of the things she must learn to fix as she tries to emerge from the fog of grief.

'H is for Hawk' manages to be informative, heartfelt, intellectual, and thoroughly evocative. Many of the images MacDonald conjures stick firmly in the mind. It is a sensual read, celebratory and sad. It is ferocious at times; wild and sharp like Mabel herself.

(Buy it on the publisher's website: http://bit.ly/Wav7v6)

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