Book Review: “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took me a while to finish this book, and at times it was hard going. Without having read the background to it, I’m assuming it is a non-fiction, autobiographical work. It’s really about grief and obsession. It follows the author’s battle to overcome the death of her father, who was an inspirational figure to her.

She channels this grief into falconry, specifically into the training of a goshawk with the unlikely name of “Mabel”. Her father was obsessive about aircraft, spending long days, as a boy, aircraft spotting, noting down aircraft numbers and types in multiple notebooks. The author’s gaze is similarly drawn skywards, but to birds, especially raptors. She comes across a 1950s book by T.H. White, “The Goshawk”, which chronicles that author’s struggle to train a goshawk. White too was suffering psychologically, battling his homosexual urges. Macdonald’s travails are paralleled throughout the book to the struggles of White.

In many ways it is a fascinating story, though not gripping enough to make it, for me, hard to put down. There is a lot of detail about goshawks, their dietary requirements, their plumage, their weight, which the average reader might not find fascinating.

As a vegetarian, I also had qualms about her use of the goshawk to kill rabbits, pheasants and doves, and was less than persuaded by her glowing account of how Canada is so much more advanced because hunting is ingrained in Canadian life. Of course, Goshawks kill in their natural state, but to me, the confining of a wild animal for much of its life in a suburban home, feeding it on assorted frozen meats, and taking it out to hunt on the city outskirts is of questionable morality. Keen falconers and non-vegetarians of course are likely to disagree.

Macdonald’s writing style is top class. It is a story worth telling and she tells it well.

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One thought on “Book Review: “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

  1. I read this book about a year ago: completely fell in love with it. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate creative non-fiction more and more. And this is just a sublime exemplar of the genre.

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