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March 8, 2017

Review: H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

by Alison DeLuca

Helen Macdonald breads death and falconry in her nonfiction book, H is for Hawk. I've wanted to read this since I saw the cover, a stylized image of a fierce goshawk.
cover of H Is for Hawk showing an illustration of a goshawk

The bird in Macdonald's book is Mabel, a goshawk adopted months after the author lost her father. Scarred with grief, she was out of touch with reality to the point of hallucination, reminiscent of The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

Mabel was the perfect pastime for Macdonald during her grief, since raising a hawk requires hours of concentration and patience as Mabel learned to fly to Macdonald's glove, return after a kill, and most of all: to trust. "The hawk," she writes, "was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life."

The book is filled with falconry terms, a delight in themselves. Bait is a hawk's annoying habit of hanging off their jesses (straps somewhat like a leash) in order to rebel against her new owner. Even hawk poop has its own verb - to mute. 

Macdonald speaks this second language fluently. She took up falconry as a child and read as much as sh could on the subject. Those studies took her on a voyage through time, back to the 17th-century volumes of falconry when it was strictly a sport of gentlemen.

falconer holding a trained hawk
image courtesy of Wiki Commons

"It took me a long time to realize how many of our classic books on animals were by gay writers who wrote of their relationships with animals in lieu of of human loves of which they could not speak," Macdonald points out. Captured by sorrow and Mabel's training, Macdonald reread The Goshawk by T.H. White. This author of The Once and Future King was enchanted by hawk-rearing, just as he was tortured by his own sexuality.

H is for Hawk is a cramped book, seemingly tiny in scope. The characters are limited, for the most part, to Mabel, Macdonald, and her father's memory. Raising a hawk means isolation; the new owner must make a huge and wild creature trust her through hours of practice without outside interference. Therefore, Macdonald and Mabel spent days inside her apartment, emerging only for short flights to the glove.

And yet the prose soars like the flight of a bird to encompass English history, literature, loss, death, friendship - and life itself. I don't usually read nonfiction, and yet H is for Hawk came to glorious, technicolor life as I consumed its pages.

For one thing, the writing is breathtaking. Macdonald exposes herself mercilessly, letting us see her sadness and experience the strange journey she took with Mabel. Set against the mysterious forest landscape of England, she doesn't hide her humanity or the fascinating inhumanity of Mabel, her goshawk.

It's a rare book that makes you sigh as you get to the end, wanting to hoard the pages left. H is for Hawk was that kind of read for me.

Buy H is for Hawk at Amazon
Alison DeLuca is the author of several steampunk and urban fantasy books.  She was born in Arizona and has also lived in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Mexico, Ireland, and Spain.
Currently she wrestles words and laundry in New Jersey.

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