H is for Hawk




From an early age, Helen Macdonald was determined to become a falconer. She learned the terminology and read all the classic books on the subject. Years later, her father dies and she is struck with grief. Deeply depressed and lost she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk.

Unbelievably she does just that, buying Mabel for £800 on a Scottish quayside and taking her home to Cambridge. There Helen embarks on  the long and incredibly strange business of trying to train one of nature’s wildest creatures.

This book has won many awards and prizes due to its devastatingly honest account of a woman struggling with grief whilst undertaking the supremely difficult process of training a hawk. The writing is beautiful and raw and human truths most of us recognise are uniquely framed within the language she uses. It is a thrilling memoir but also a chilling one.

As a reader I was fully immersed in her hawk training/grieving process, feeling like I was swept along for this macabre ride whether I liked it or not.

“I had lost all hope in her coming but I called her all the same. And she flew to me. She flew like a promise finally kept.”

Macdonald’s observant style makes this a vivid and fascinating read but can I honestly say I enjoyed this book? The answer is no. I appreciated it, but I didn’t like it. This has a lot to do with my feelings on animal welfare and hunting. The book was full of brutish cruelty and the endless, thoughtless facilitating of unnecessary death. Of course a hawk is a predatory bird when free but getting over the death of her father by training this creature to kill, kill, kill seemed such a bizarre and savage way to deal with her emotions. The author says herself at one point:

“What am I going to do with the hawk? Kill things. Make death.”

It was this that I could not get over and my feelings are perfectly summed up by a letter Helen Macdonald includes in H is For Hawk. A letter written to author and her literary falconry mentor T.H White:

“How can you talk of love for a bird after subjecting a wonderful predatory bird to such torture  is beyond me. Is there not enough cruelty in the world without adding to it for one’s own amusement or hobby?”

This book is original and unusual and her excellent writing brings nature into normal life away from the clutches of the experts. I just didn’t like the captivity and hunting aspect – all the dead rabbits and pheasants, all the bloodlust that is falconry. So why did I read it?  Well quite simply I was intrigued by how enthralled the publishing world were by a book about bereavement and birds! Ultimately it was uncomfortable and unpleasant reading for me, though as a writer she is worthy of last year’s plaudits.

Notes on the author – Helen Macdonald:

  • Writer, poet, illustrator and historian
  • Affiliate at Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge
  • Other books include Falcon (2006) and Shaler’s Fish (2001)

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