Review: H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

Josie Bowerman 16 October 2014

A simple title for an h-is-for-hallucinatory book.

Hawk meets human when Macdonald, determined to become a falconer, acquires a young goshawk and retreats to master the bird. Yet in this work she’s created something that’s so much more than the story of her experience. Sometimes, her novel is about land and people and the relationship between them, with the hawk acting as a messenger for both sides. Macdonald’s writing about place is alive; her ideas about nature run through the book, darting and hot-blooded, in and out of sight.

At other times, H is for Hawk is about Macdonald’s bone-scrapingly personal account of mastering her hawk while dealing with her father’s sudden death and the onset of an enormous depression.These hot, strange snatches of memoir tangle into the book and grip tight as talons, clawing the reader deep into Macdonald’s mind.

In her grief, Macdonald fixates on the English author T. H. White, an alumna of Queens’ College, Cambridge, who wrote the hawking memoir The Goshawk, whereby he attempted to train a Northern Goshawk using traditional techniques. Her feverish obsession with White’s sad, scared life forms another key aspect of the book. She creates an achingly sympathetic portrait of a forgotten man, but wisely judges how finely she draws him.

H is for Hawk is a weighty book; any more detail would make it oppressively heavy. That Macdonald can balance the load demonstrates her skill as a writer.

To read it is to feel exhilarated and wind-rushed – as if the book has thrown you into the sky. Macdonald swoops and circles around her themes, as fierce, fascinating and strange as her hawk, a mind flying free. There’s something wild and proud about this book that no letter of the alphabet could represent.

H is for haunting.
H is for heart-racing.
H is for… Just read it and feel as awed at the huge wingspan of Macdonald’s talent.