H is for Hawk: a book review

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

For quite some time, I have been waiting eagerly for my copy of H is for Hawk to arrive. I became aware of the author, Helen Macdonald, through her blog, so I knew in advance that the writing would be superb. Early reviews of the book reinforced this belief – “lyrical,” said The Guardian; “a soaring triumph,” said The Telegraph; “a dazzling piece of work,” said The Financial Times.

H is for Hawk is a nature book, but an intensely personal one – like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, perhaps, but much more so. Grief-stricken by her father’s death, Helen Macdonald decides to follow in the footsteps of the (rather disturbed) author T. H. White by training a goshawk. Macdonald describes the goshawk species this way:

In real life, goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier, and much, much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they’re the birdwatchers’ dark grail. You might spend a week in a forest full of gosses and never see one, just traces of their presence. A sudden hush, followed by the calls of terrified woodland birds, and a sense of something moving just beyond vision… Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.

A female goshawk, Accipiter gentilis

Raising large predatory birds is an unusual way of dealing with grief, but we all cope with loss in different ways. The author was indeed “looking for grace,” and it is at least possible that grace takes wingèd form. Macdonald first meets her goshawk, later named Mabel, emerging from a cardboard box:

The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.

Juvenile (left) and adult (right) goshawks

Training a goshawk requires intense observation of the bird’s appearance and behaviour, and Macdonald’s wonderful prose beautifully captures the results of her observation. To take just one example:

The feathers down her front are the colour of sunned newsprint, of tea-stained paper, and each is marked darkly towards its tip with a leaf-bladed spearhead, so from her throat to her feet she is patterned with a shower of falling raindrops. Her wings are the colour of stained oak, their covert feathers edged in palest teak, barred flight-feathers folded quietly beneath. And there’s a strange grey tint to her that is felt, rather than seen, a kind of silvery light like a rainy sky reflected from the surface of a river.

The gaze of this goshawk “filled me with dread,” according to photographer Steve Garvie

Goshawks are not, in any sense, domesticated animals. They are very, very wild, and Macdonald finds that “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human.” She loves Mabel, but without sentimental misunderstandings (and without the unconscious cruelty of T. H. White). She understands that a predator’s role in the natural world is to kill and eat prey. At one point she describes her goshawk as “the bastard offspring of a flaming torch and an assault rifle.” Such a clear understanding of the fact that predators predate is essential to good wildlife management. Nature is what it is, not what we would have it be: “there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves.”

A goshawk nest with four young birds (photo: Rainer Altenkamp)

I had high expectations of this book, and I was not disappointed – it is one of the best books I have read in a long time. But what of grace? For goshawks in general, it came in the restoration of the British goshawk population. “The wild can be human work,” as Macdonald writes. T. H. White, on the other hand, never recovered from the pain of his dysfunctional childhood. Mabel the goshawk grew to adulthood and flew for many years. And Macdonald herself? I’ll leave the reader to decide whether wild predatory birds can indeed bring healing from pain and grief. However, I was reminded of a certain young wizard who, “in fierce distress,” transforms into a great hawk in order to return to the land of his birth. “Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.

Naturally, this brief review can scarcely do justice to a book as complex as H is for Hawk. But anyone interested in birds, in people, in grief, in England, in T. H. White, or in brilliant, lyrical writing that swoops and soars like the goshawk herself – anyone interested in such things should read this book. I’m giving it a very rare 5 stars.

For lengthy excerpts from the book, along with photographs of Mabel, see here and here. Macdonald has also written Falcon, although that is a very different kind of book.

* * * * *
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: 5 stars


5 thoughts on “H is for Hawk: a book review

  1. Pingback: Vesper Flights: a book review and reflection | Scientific Gems

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