H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

When I read the opening pages of H is for Hawk I quickly realised that the book would not be what I had been expecting. Following the sudden death of her father, Helen Macdonald was seized by the desire to train a goshawk, the most difficult bird of prey, and the book charts the developing relationship she has with Mabel, the bird she eventually chooses. I had originally thought the narrative would focus on her relationship with her father but instead layers of emotions are interspersed with falconry facts, a biography of T. H. White and musings on history. No single facet of the book is dominant and so a careful balance is created which draws the reader in even as it holds them at a distance. Macdonald does not try to explain why she reacted as she did which prevents any cloying morals from being patronisingly explained. Nevertheless, the goshawk both saves and overwhelms her as she chooses to retreat further into the wildness discovered when she begins to interpret the world as Mabel does.

I was surprised that I found the sections of H is for Hawk which dramatise T.H. White’s struggle to tame a goshawk more painful to read that the description of Macdonald’s own nervous breakdown. I think this is because they enable her to explore her own fears about failing to train Mabel whilst also acknowledging that White was completely unprepared and naive when training his own bird, Gos. He was motivated by a belief that it would act as a rite of passage to prove his manliness and self-sufficiency. However, Macdonald examines his attempts with the eyes of an experienced falconer and is distressed by how he unknowingly mistreats Gos, first through overfeeding and then by confusing training.

I can understand how the book has won so many prizes, it is neither self-important nor insular, as Macdonald acknowledges her failings but refuses to let self pity overcome her while also describing new worlds for her readers. I often found myself sympathising even when she turned her back on an obvious offer of help as she was clearly profoundly affected by her father’s death and the new escape which nature offered her was understandably tempting. The book has also tempted me to reread The Sword in the Stone as I am sure that the birds of prey which feature will now hold an additional claim on my interest as I will see the echo of White’s struggle with falconry.