Book review – H is for Hawk

I love all the different elements you’ve put on the plate, it’s beautifully presented and you’re demonstrating some real cooking skills. But for me, the dish just doesn’t come together as a whole.

This is but one of many oft repeated comments from expert judges on MasterChef, as they skewer the culinary hopes of another competitor. But I’m afraid the same thoughts began to run through my head as I got deeper into Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk.

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Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction and the Costa Book Award in 2014, it is an accomplished piece of thoughtful – and thought-provoking – literature.

The author is a writer, a naturalist and an academic. And, after the death of her father, she spent an intense year training a hawk. Not just any hawk…a goshawk. Which she named Mabel.

Helen Macdonald – Image courtesy of Time Out

The book is multi-layered. At its core, it is a moving autobiography as the mental and physical energy required to train Mabel distracts Helen from the searing grief of losing her beloved father.

There was nothing that was such a salve to my grieving heart as the hawk returning. 

I felt incomplete unless the hawk was sitting on my hand: we were parts of each other. Grief and the hawk had conspired to this strangeness. 

A biographical thread also runs through the entire book, with the author recounting the parallel story of T. H. White’s own, less successful, hawk-training efforts, as told in his 1951 book The Goshawk.

And of course Helen’s own narrative includes some dazzling prose about the natural environment into which Mabel is gradually introduced. And in which the beautiful hawk is eventually flying free, rather than tethered to its trainer.

The hawk left the fist with a recoil of a .303 rifle. I stepped out to watch. Saw a chain of events so fast they snapped into a comic strip: frame, frame, frame. Frame one: goshawk spluttering from the fist in bars and pinions and talons. Frame two: goshawk low to the ground, grass streaking along under her. Chocolate wings, beating strongly, hump-backed. Frame three: rabbits running. Frame four: the pheasant, too, crouching and running into the wood’s safe margin.

Each element of the book is presented with consummate literary skill, but for me, the story just didn’t come together as a whole.

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