A market researcher once asked me “What do you want to read about?” I can’t remember what I said but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “I’d like to read about how an academic Englishwoman lived out her grief through raising and training a goshawk.”
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? We read in order to be taken to places we didn’t even realise we wanted to go. To learn about things that it hadn’t occurred to us to learn about.
H is for Hawk is remarkable. A compelling, lyrical, insightful read.
I’d passed over many of it’s reviews because I assumed it was fiction and, without thinking too much about it at all, assumed it wasn’t for me. Then somehow I noticed that it was non-fiction and all of a sudden I badly wanted to read it. Still not quite sure what was going on there…who really knows how we decide which book to read and which to leave on the shelf.
Helen Macdonald’s writing is crisp and beautiful. She renders the complications of death and love and life into an elegy for her glorious bird (incongruously, deliberately, called Mabel).
Every tiny part of her was boiling with life, as if from a distance you could see a plume of steam around her, coiling and ascending and making everything around her slightly blurred, so she stood out in fierce, corporeal detail. The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge. My flight from death was on her barred and beating wings. But I had forgotten that the puzzle that was death was caught up in the hawk, and I was caught up in it too.
Mabel’s early training provides a framework for the narrative. Within that framework Macdonald skillfully weaves in her own story and that of other falconers, past and present. She candidly explores the notions of death and grief and living. Macdonald is a woman with an unusual skill (falconry) in a field dominated by unusual men (again, falconry). That’s an issue she explores too. It’s a complex narrative, never simplistically linear, but Macdonald’s deft touch ensures that the story is told with a clear, engaging voice.
It reminded me of two other excellent books that explore the psyche via the prism of the English countryside (and both of which I found unexpectedly fascinating):
- Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland. “Part travelogue, part folklore, Sara Maitland’s journey into 12 British forests is infectiously enjoyable.”
- The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane. “This meditation on pathways always leads back to the human heart.”
H is for Hawk is a wild ride, a serendipitous inquiry into what makes us who we are. As a book it is proof that good writing can make even seemingly arcane and obscure topics worth reading about.
Other reviews of H is for Hawk:
- Perfectionist Pen
- Telegraph (UK)
- The Guardian has two: here and here
- The New York Times
- The Times Literary Supplement
- The Los Angeles Times
- There are lots more – lucky Helen Macdonald – just Google.
Read an extract here.