H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is a memoir of a woman raiding a goshawk while dealing with the grief of losing her father. Macdonald’s memoir has been nominated for and won numerous awards, including the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, the Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Nonfiction (Shortlist), and the Kirkus Prize Nominee for Nonfiction (Finalist) to name a few.
Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.
When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life.
I know very little about hawks or hawking in general, so reading this book, I expected to learn quite a bit about these things, and I did! Macdonald does a good job of imparting this knowledge in a variety of ways, from writing about her own personal experience raising and caring for Mabel, her goshawk, from the books she read, especially as a girl, that talked about how to raise hawks, to her reading and personal interpretation of T.H. White’s story The Goshawk, in which he raises a hawk. All these ways are used to provide detailed accounts of hawks and how they live, how they’re raised by people as a sport. It was very fascinating!
Much of the story, too, is about Macdonald dealing with the sudden death of her father, whom she loved very much. Grief is steeped into the pages of this story, with Macdonald reflecting on her own memories of her father and connecting her time raising the goshawk to battling this grief. There’s a lot of contemplation on life and death, the brutality of nature, and how raising hawks brings you closer to that brutality while giving you the excuse of being aloof from that brutality.
It is a really fascinating read and I particularly liked listening to the audiobook, which is read by Macdonald herself. The book was rather slow, though, and there were many times where I was ready for the book to be over. It’s not my type of book. I love non-fiction, but I was just not compelled by Macdonald’s words and often I found my mind wandering, rather than giving this book the attention it deserved.
Literary Value: 3/5
I think Macdonald’s memoir is very interesting and I learned a lot from it, and she certainly has a strong command of words. There were many times where I had to stop and look something up, which added to the slowness of reading it, to be honest.
While I think that, technically speaking, this book is very well written and compelling, I think for the average person, it’s not a very absorbing book. The melancholy themes, the ambling text, the recounting of T.H. White’s life and experiences, really slow down the story itself. The pacing of this book is much too slow, I think, which is why I really had to take my time reading it. I often felt like I was plodding through each chapter, which made it difficult for me to enjoy what I was reading.
Entertainment Factor: 3/5
I enjoyed certain parts of this book. When Macdonald talked about her time with Mabel, her goshawk, and what it was like to raise her and train her, I was definitely entertained. I love birds in general, and I think Macdonald did a good job of writing these elements of her story because I could picture what she was doing, I could picture Mabel, and it really captured my imagination.
But I really did not enjoy the times in the book she spent recounting T.H. White’s life, and would include passages from his novel The Goshawk because it really slowed down the story and I didn’t pick up this book to hear about White, I picked it up to hear about Macdonald. I understand why she included these bits about White, since his experiences with training a goshawk were so different from hers and he was also battling with his own troubles, just as she is. So the connection is there, but I just didn’t enjoy reading it.
So really, this book would have been so much more interesting to me if Macdonald’s pacing and her subject matter were slightly changed – more about her own personal experience and at a faster pace, with less heavy language to describe it. I would have got along better, I think.
Cover Art: 4/5
I really like this cover – it looks like a woodcut and I’m a huge fan of woodcuts. I like the focus on the hawk and portraying it front and center. It really captures the eye and the color scheme really goes well. I like the monochromatic neutral tones, the browns and tans and black, with that hint of yellow. It makes the image really pop. Overall, I think it’s simplicity is what wins it my attention, because the hawk is front and center and there isn’t anything else to distract me from it.
Overall Rating: 3.25/5 Hawks
I learned so much from Macdonald about hawks, and goshawks in particular. This book really brought to life the effort, the love, the stress of training of hawks. I enjoyed these elements of the book immensely, and I sympathized with Macdonald as she writes about her struggles to train this hawk while dealing with the grief of losing her father. I think animals have a great capacity to transform human suffering into something healing. These made for very compelling moments.
What I did not enjoy was the writing itself. Macdonald is certainly a very knowledgeable person, and the literacy of this book is very high, but because of this, it made for much slower reading. I don’t feel the pacing of the book helped and often there were very slow moments. This might not bother some, but in non-fiction books, I need the overall story to be more compelling to pull me along and pique my interest.
I also didn’t really enjoy Macdonald’s heavy reliance on T.H. White’s story to parallel/contrast her own. I found these moments in the story to be the least entertaining and they really slowed down the story.
So, for me, this book is very middle road. I’ve read other non-fiction books that pulled me in much more, that made me feel like I was reading a novel, or at least were fast-paced and continually kept up my interest. Not so much with this one. I understand why it has been nominated and awarded so many things. It is a well-written book. It’s just not so much my cup of tea. Definitely read it if you like more thoughtful, philosophical memoirs.
Thoughts & Thanks
Thank you so much for reading my review! I hope I’ve helped aid you in your decision to read this book. If you have read it or if you’re thinking about reading it, let me know what you thought in the comments! And as always, happy reading!