All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: H Is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald

on September 26, 2019

H Is For Hawk
Helen MacDonald
Grove Press
2015, 300p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life.

Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.

This book was a huge struggle for me.

The premise interested me. I don’t know anything about falconry and the closest I’ve gotten is seeing the Australian Birds of Prey show at the wildlife sanctuary. But I thought learning about training a hawk would be quite interesting, even if I do consider it a bit of an antiquated past-time. This was one of the suggestions in the Goodreads group for the Reading Women Podcast Challenge for the prompt of “A woman in science” and it sounded the most interesting to me from all the books listed. And it was easily accessible as my library had a copy on the shelf and available.

Frankly for me, far too much of this book is about T.H. White, an English author who wrote Arthurian novels and also, apparently, a book about training a goshawk which reads more like a “how not to”. Helen Macdonald read this novel as a child and for some reason, it’s revisited constantly, despite the fact that White appeared to have no actual clue what he was doing and his actions were negligent at best and downright animal cruelty at worst. A lot of made of White’s background, which seems admittedly difficult and his latent or buried homosexuality. The thing is, if I’d wanted to read about T.H. White, I’d have gone and read about T.H. White. If I’d wanted to read The Goshawk, I’d have borrowed it from the library. In all honesty I didn’t care about T.H. White and his ineptitude and I got sick of long passages devoted to him. It was incredibly tedious.

Although…..sometimes Helen’s passages about herself were no easier to read. It was very difficult to be in her head. She completely immerses herself in training Mabel, the goshawk she acquires, which seems to go quite well. Goshawks are apparently, notoriously difficult to tame and from an outsider’s perspective, Helen doesn’t seem to have too much difficulty with Mabel at all. There are some settling in issues as Mabel gets used to her but she feeds and sleeps and seems quite well in herself. Helen however, is constantly crippled with anxiety about her, thinking that Mabel hates her and that she’s ruining her. She completely retreats from her life (and I understand this is grief as well as her devotion to Mabel, both are one and the same it seems) but to the point where she seems to resent any interaction with humans. She doesn’t want to talk to people, she doesn’t want to come to the door. She basically ends up as feral as Mabel and at times, it was definitely quite a struggle getting through some of those sections. I was happy to see Helen actually went to get some help late in the novel, I can’t help feeling like she had needed some help dealing with her mental health for quite a while. It didn’t seem like she spent enough time with anyone for them to notice that she seemed to be struggling quite a lot. I have not lost a parent and I don’t know that level of grief, but Helen seems to withdraw so much from life after her father dies. She mentions her job (the house she was living in was provided by her work) but during her early time with Mabel, she seems to do so little except be with the hawk. When her contract finishes, she seems to seek no other work, just focusing on Mabel.

There were several instances in this novel where Helen takes Mabel hawking places she doesn’t have permission to be and then of course, Mabel causes carnage with people’s commercial pheasants, because she’s a hawk, she’s bred to hunt prey. But Helen just kind of stuffs the evidence in her pockets and hightails it out of there, which made me feel like that was a bit of a terrible thing to do. She could’ve sought these people out and apologised and offered to compensate them for their losses. If she did that, it wasn’t included in the book, it just made it seem like she got the heck out as soon as Mabel was finished, which felt quite rude and inconsiderate. There are places where Helen does have permission to hunt with Mabel, so her blithe ‘I’m not allowed to be here, oh well’ didn’t really sit very well with me.

This book won two very prestigious awards – The Samuel Johnson Prize (now Baillie Gifford Prize) awarded to a book of non-fiction in the English language, and the Costa Book Award in the Biography category. But unfortunately, I cannot say I enjoyed the experience of reading H Is For Hawk. To be honest, if this wasn’t to complete a prompt in my Reading Women Challenge, I probably would’ve DNF’d this. The only thing I really enjoyed was Mabel. I thought she sounded quite wonderful.


Book #148 of 2019

H Is For Hawk counts towards my Reading Women Challenge 2019, hosted by the Reading Women Podcast. It ticks off prompt #7 – Featuring a woman in science. It’s the 20th book I’ve completed for the challenge.

3 responses to “Review: H Is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald

  1. Lloyd Russell says:

    I DNF’d it after 7 pages. I obviously didn’t give it much of a chance.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. […] Featuring a woman in science – H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. My review. […]

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