H Is for Hawk

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One of the New York Times Book Review‘s 10 Best Books of the Year

A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: TIME (#1 Nonfiction Book), NPR, O, The Oprah Magazine (10 Favorite Books), Vogue (Top 10), Vanity Fair, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times, San Francisco Chronicle (Top 10), Miami Herald, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Minneapolis Star Tribune (Top 10), Library Journal (Top 10), Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Slate, Shelf Awareness, Book Riot, Amazon (Top 20)


The instant New York Times bestseller and award-winning sensation, Helen Macdonald’s story of adopting and raising one of nature’s most vicious predators has soared into the hearts of millions of readers worldwide. Fierce and feral, her goshawk Mabel’s temperament mirrors Helen’s own state of grief after her father’s death, and together raptor and human “discover the pain and beauty of being alive” (People). H Is for Hawk is a genre-defying debut from one of our most unique and transcendent voices.

An Amazon Best Book of the Month for March 2015: When naturalist and falconer Helen Macdonald lost her beloved father, she “thought [her] world was ending.” Seems apropos, then, that her journey from crippling grief to something resembling grace is on the wings of another deadly bird of prey–the notoriously prickly, and murderous, goshawk. In H Is for Hawk, you will meet Mabel, not your typical bloodthirsty specimen, as she is trained to hunt like the goshawks of yore. It is this brash, slightly mad undertaking that wrenches Macdonald free from despair, and brings her to a place where she can begin again. Doesn’t sound like your kind of thing? You’d be surprised. Macdonald’s gorgeously wrought prose holds you in thrall from the first page, and provides something akin to the escape, and salvation, that nature provides her. In ‘Hawk’ you will also learn about the famed Arthurian novelist T.H. White, a kindred soul to Macdonald in certain ways. One of the things that endeared him to her was his “childish delight” with all things wild, something you’ll be hard-pressed not to experience as soon as you tap into this tome. –Erin Kodicek

One of the New York Times Book Review‘s 10 Best Books of the Year

A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: TIME (#1 Nonfiction Book), NPR, O, The Oprah Magazine (10 Favorite Books), Vogue (Top 10), Vanity Fair, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times, San Francisco Chronicle (Top 10), Miami Herald, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Minneapolis Star Tribune (Top 10), Library Journal (Top 10), Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Slate, Shelf Awareness, Book Riot, Amazon (Top 20)


The instant New York Times bestseller and award-winning sensation, Helen Macdonald’s story of adopting and raising one of nature’s most vicious predators has soared into the hearts of millions of readers worldwide. Fierce and feral, her goshawk Mabel’s temperament mirrors Helen’s own state of grief after her father’s death, and together raptor and human “discover the pain and beauty of being alive” (People). H Is for Hawk is a genre-defying debut from one of our most unique and transcendent voices.

3 Responses to H Is for Hawk

  1. roz morris says:
    311 of 317 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Challenging, mesmerising, poetic, August 29, 2014
    By 

    This review is from: H is for Hawk (Kindle Edition)
    Some of my favourite books have been memoirs of a challenging relationship with an animal – Jane Shilling’s Fox in the Cupboard, Gavin Maxwell’s otter oeuvre. H is for Hawk belongs alongside them.
    If that description ‘relationship with an animal’ sounds fluffy or cosy to you, think again. These animals aren’t pets. They are forces to be negotiated with, embodiments of the wild that pitch you into a different way of life and living. You don’t invite an otter, a horse or a goshawk to be your friend. You go to their world. You tune into their mind, their instincts, their priorities, their joys, their fears – and in so doing, you find the places where you are wild yourself. And that wildness doesn’t mean uncomplicated freedom. Its values have little in common with human concerns. It is a stripped-away state of being, a universe of survival and struggle, where trust might be life or death.
    In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s journey has added significance. She acquired her goshawk when in the depths of mourning after her father died suddenly. So the hawk is a voyage into a land of death, for not only is her hawk – who she names Mabel – red in tooth and claw, she is a mysterious, highly tuned instrument of death. The only fluffiness in this book is the down on the new-born chicks that are Mabel’s staple food.
    Macdonald does not shy away from this. A lifelong falconer, she defines her world early in the book, banishing any romantic notions of the falconry sport when she writes of a hawk ‘murdering a pigeon’. In the same spirit, this book is raw in emotional tone too. As we see what hawks do, we see what grief does. It strips the world to a race of life and death, to basic needs, to negotiations with a creature that does not understand words or language but operates in a key of hunger, speed and instinct. Mabel has to be kept on a careful edge of hunger and satiation in order to hunt and fly. If Helen feeds her too much she won’t have the appetite or prowess to perform. Too little, and she becomes desperate and aggressive.
    And despite her falconry experience, Macdonald finds the training a harrowing process. Establishing a relationship with this creature is an ordeal of patience, nerves, and a challenge to everything she finds certain in her life – which, in her bereaved state, is very little.
    As well as a passage through the valley of mourning, this book is also an exploration of a talismanic work from Macdonald’s own past, The Goshawk by TH White. She first read it as a child, and was appalled by White’s apparent ignorance, clumsiness and cruelty as his time with his hawk did not go well. Nevertheless, she has read it to shreds over the years, first because there were few books for a falcon-mad girl to read, but latterly because she saw something else. It wasn’t about hawks, it was about a man, a homosexual, emotionally scarred man who was struggling to tame his own nature. Parts of her narrative examine White’s life, decoding this figure whose book had been such a presence from her childhood days. And just as White was destabilised by his experience taming hawks, Macdonald finds herself pushed to desperation. Taming the bird becomes the centre of her life, and not just for its own sake. It is a rite of reckoning, of approaching a more inaccessible, unavoidable inner process.
    I haven’t yet mentioned Macdonald’s prose – and I must. It is sublime, haunting, transforming, written with the heart of a poet. I could quote the entire book if I started picking choice passages, so I’ll make do with just this, her description of walking the fields with Mabel flying behind her ‘like a personal angel’.
    And so this book will stay with you, as a challenging, mesmerising messenger.

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  2. Jean Gill says:
    145 of 152 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A remarkable experience for all nature-lovers, October 12, 2014
    By 
    Jean Gill (Provence, France) –

    This review is from: H is for Hawk (Kindle Edition)
    This promised to be my kind of book; grief and healing through immersion in the natural world, specifically through training a goshawk. Add to these ingredients a parallel rediscovery of T.H.White’s own book on training a bird of prey, ‘the Goshawk’ (which I haven’t read but as ‘The Once and Future King was my favourite book throughout adolescence, I knew a little about the writer). I wasn’t disappointed.

    Beautifully written, this is a book to savour, to read and re-read, slowly. I lived through every moment of frustration and breakthrough in training Mabel. I loved the wealth of falconry detail and appreciated Helen Macdonald’s sharp analysis of ‘the baggage’ in all the advice. Sexism, philosophy, animal rights and – above all – death: this passionate adventure in the company of a wild creature raises some big questions and offers only the experience itself in response.

    I am still thinking about the book; about the egotism of extreme grief, about the way we bring our own beliefs and emotions to our relationships with ‘animals’, and about the falconry training methods themselves. As I say, this is my kind of book; one of the best I’ve read this year, perhaps one of the best ever.

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  3. Roger Brunyate says:
    104 of 108 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Mending the Scars, March 15, 2015
    By 
    Roger Brunyate (Baltimore, MD) –
    (VINE VOICE)
      
    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)
      

    This review is from: H Is for Hawk (Kindle Edition)
    I almost never read non-fiction; I am not sure I know how to appraise it. But I can recognize good writing. Try this: second page of the book, Macdonald saying that few people will have seen a hawk making a kill… “But maybe you have: maybe you’ve glanced out of the window and seen there, on the lawn, a bloody great hawk murdering a pigeon, or a blackbird, or a magpie, and it looks the hugest, most impressive piece of wildness you have ever seen, like someone’s tipped a snow leopard into your kitchen and you find it eating the cat.” Or again, on the next page: “Have you ever watched a deer walking out from cover? They step, stop, and stay, motionless, nose to the air, looking and smelling. A nervous twitch might run down their flanks. And then, reassured that all is safe, they ankle their way out of the brush to graze.” Such a simple direct style, almost conversational. And then, out of nowhere, she slips in the extraordinary image of the snow leopard, or the unexpectedly perfect verb, “ankle.” Helen Macdonald, naturalist, historian, research fellow at Cambridge, writes in the great tradition of British nature writing, with a keen eye and fine-point pen. I doubt I will see writing this good again this year, whether in fiction or non-fiction.

    On one level, Macdonald’s book is the record of a season spent training a goshawk that she names Mabel. She is no stranger to falconry, having been fascinated by birds since she was a child. As a historian, she has read all the literature on this aristocratic sport. She has trained sparrowhawks and falcons from her late teens. But the goshawk is larger and rarer, with a reputation for being both more dangerous and more temperamental. She orders one from Northern Ireland and meets the seller off the boat on the bleak Scottish coast. “I grabbed the hood from the box and turned to the hawk. Her beak was open, her hackles raised; her wild eyes were the colour of sun on white paper, and they stared because the whole world had fallen into them at once.” The saga of her attempt to enter into some kind of relationship with this bird — patient waiting, sleepless nights, small triumphs, and devastating setbacks — reads as an emotional roller-coaster described with the precision of a scientist. Yet what she is describing is herself as much as the bird; at times, she virtually becomes the goshawk, seeing the world through her eyes, losing the ability to communicate with other human beings.

    The book is also a halting dialogue with the souls of two men, both dead. One is her father, a news photographer whose sudden death sends her into a tailspin; the book might almost be called “The Year of Magical Hawking.” I found it just as powerful as Joan Didion’s memoir and, for me at least, much closer to home. It is clear that this father-daughter relationship must have been an extraordinary one; the boy who would attempt to bring some order to the destruction of WW2 by obsessively listing the planes returning to Biggin Hill now teaching his daughter the patience required to observe the other kinds of aerial fighters, but also the wonder and variety of the earthbound world all around her.

    The other man is the English writer T. H. White, who would become famous for his recreations of the Arthurian legend in THE SWORD IN THE STONE and THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. In between quitting his job as a prep-school master and achieving fame as an author, White moved to a cottage in the country and bought a goshawk which he attempted to train, writing about it many years later in his book THE GOSHAWK. It is, however, a book about a falconer who does everything wrong, treating the bird with an unintentional cruelty that leads only to failure. But Macdonald looks beyond the failure to the psychopathy behind it, the tragedy of a lonely boy treated cruelly by his colonial parents and cane-wielding schoolmasters to the point where he abhors violence yet lacks examples of love with which to replace it. Her portrait of White is extraordinarily perceptive, but it is her own life she must deal with. And here at least, she begins to succeed, as in this final quotation, from late in the book:

    “I put White’s book on the shelves, make myself a cup of tea. I’m in a contemplative mood. I’d brought the hawk into my world and then I pretended I lived in hers. Now it feels different: we share our lives happily in all their separation. I look down on my hands. There are scars on them now. Thin white lines. One is from her talons when she was fractious with hunger; it feels like a warning made flesh. Another is a blackthorn rip from the time I’d pushed through a hedge to find the hawk I thought I’d lost. And there were other scars, too, but they were not visible. They were the ones she’d helped mend, not make.”

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