Julie Christine's Reviews > H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
1213607
's review

it was amazing
bookshelves: bio-autobio-memoir, read-2015, best-of-2015

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’.
Here’s another word: raptor, meaning ‘bird of prey’. From the Latin raptor, meaning ‘robber,’ from rapere meaning ‘seize’. Rob. Seize.

Here’s another word: Captivating. H is for Hawk stole me, holding me captive with its madness and love. Part claustrophobic memoir of grief, part luminous tribute to the sport of falconry, Helen Macdonald’s book is brilliant and tense. It is a story of fury and grace, recounted in pulsing, poetic language.

Helen’s father, a famous Fleet Street photographer, dies unexpectedly and Helen, a historian, poet, and experienced falconer, tumbles into the abyss. Retreating from the world, she seizes on the one thing she believes will keep her from being swallowed by grief: she will train a goshawk.

Goshawks are the Velociraptors of the raptor world, a hawk of the genus Accipter, not to be confused with its far more approachable and trainable cousin the falcon, of the genus Falco. Macdonald’s Czech-German goshawk, whom she purchases on a Scottish quayside for £800, is "a griffin from the pages of an illuminated bestiary". The bird appears as a primordial creature, an ancient, disappeared thing rising from the half-life of history: "the lucency of her pale, round eyes… the waxy, yellow skin about her Bakelite-black beak… half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass".

Macdonald names the goshawk Mabel, from the Latin amabilis, meaning "lovable" or "dear”. This is perhaps a hope that Macdonald projects onto the goshawk, for there is always a current of tension and violence running between woman and raptor; Macdonald never takes for granted that this creature who lives in her home and perches on her wrist is built for murder.

Training a goshawk is a pressure cooker of isolation and suppressed emotion. The bird is hyper-sensitive to disturbances in its force field and in the early days Macdonald lives like a monk—barely eating or sleeping. She forgets she is human as she works to enter Mabel’s psyche and earn her trust. In this way, she shuts down her human mourning and becomes something feral. She feeds Mabel corpses of tiny birds. Gradually, she reenters the world, Mabel on her wrist. Raptor and woman learn to navigate the outside together, each wholly dependent on the other for cues and sustenance, one emotional, the other flesh.

H is for Hawk seduces the reader with the peculiar lexicon of falconry
As a child I’d cleaved to falconry’s disconcertingly complex vocabulary. In my old books every part of a hawk was named: wings were sails, claws pounces, tail a train. Male hawks are a third smaller than the female so they are called tiercels, from the Latin tertius, for third. Young birds are eyasses, older birds passagers, adult-trapped birds haggards. Half-trained hawks fly on a long line called a creance. Hawks don’t wipe their beaks, they feak. When they defecate they mute. When they shake themselves they rouse. On and on it goes in a dizzying panoply of terms of precision.

Macdonald herself has the soul of a poet and uses language to a lyrical, gorgeous degree in her book. Upon bringing Mabel home for the first time, she tells us the bird fills “the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.” Or a field is "washed pewter with frost". Pages of this beautiful wording fill the memoir. And strikingly, so does a strain of literary thriller, a masterful touch that lifts the narrative sharply from Macdonald’s heavy grief. Each foray the pair makes outside is fraught, first with fear—how will Mabel respond the hurly-burly of modern life—then, as the raptor is allowed to fly with increasing liberty, there is escape, violence, death. Macdonald snaps the necks of the rabbits that Mabel attacks; she pockets the pheasants that Mabel poaches. She watches with her heart in her throat as Mabel flies free, away from her, and realizes she has transferred all her hope and madness into this raw, fierce, creature.

Paralleling Macdonald and Mabel’s journey is the story of the British writer TH White, best known for The Once and Future King, his epic retelling of the Arthurian legend. White was also a falconer and wrote of his experiences trying to train a goshawk. His tribulations with Gos become something of a metaphor for his troubled life. Macdonald recounts the abuse and neglect he suffered at the hands of his parents, the depravity of his boarding school classmates, the cruel repression of his homosexuality, and his struggles as a writer. Macdonald seems to use the sadness of White’s life as a way to cope with her own, as well as a cautionary tale of how not to build a relationship with a goshawk.

At her father’s memorial, many months after his death, Macdonald has a crystalline epiphany: “…human hands have other hands to hold; they shouldn't be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.” There are many turning points and milestones in the training of Mabel, but this is the moment when we see a human animal transform. Balancing between the dreamlike world of falconry and the prosaic demands of home, job, and relationships, she regains her footing.

As Macdonald so beautifully states, the “archeology of grief is not ordered.” There is no formula for surviving the worst the world can conjure. We each struggle our way through the morass. Helen Macdonald found her redemption in the keen, wild soul of goshawk.

130 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read H is for Hawk.
Sign In »

Quotes Julie Christine Liked

Helen Macdonald
“A short scuffle, and then out into the gloom, her grey crest raised and her barred chest feathers puffed up into a meringue of aggression and fear, came a huge old female goshawk. Old because her feet were gnarled and dusty, her eyes a deep, fiery orange, and she was beautiful. Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thunder-cloud. She completely filled the room. She had a massive back of sun-bleached grey feathers, was as muscled as a pit bull, and intimidating as hell, even to staff who spent their days tending eagles.”
Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk


Reading Progress

March 23, 2015 – Shelved
March 23, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
June 14, 2015 – Started Reading
June 14, 2015 – Shelved as: bio-autobio-memoir
June 16, 2015 –
page 56
18.67% "When you are broken, you run. But you don’t always run away. Sometimes, helplessly, you run towards."
June 17, 2015 –
page 56
18.67% "'Concentrate on why you are here. You have a hawk to fly.'"
June 17, 2015 –
page 122
40.67% "Concentrate on why you are here. You have a hawk to fly.'"
June 18, 2015 – Shelved as: read-2015
June 18, 2015 – Finished Reading
June 19, 2015 – Shelved as: best-of-2015

Comments Showing 1-30 of 30 (30 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

Kristine You're really going to love the writing. I was going to recommend it to you, but it's on your list.


Julie Christine Kristine wrote: "You're really going to love the writing. I was going to recommend it to you, but it's on your list." I can't wait! Well, I'm seventy-billionth in line at the library, so I'll have to wait, but I know it's going to be SO GOOD!


Joyce Wow! Excellent review.


message 4: by Antigone (new)

Antigone Such a richly-worded and compassionate review! Well done.


Esil I had a somewhat different reaction to this book, but I love your review


message 6: by Debbie "DJ" (new) - added it

Debbie "DJ" Fantastic review Julie! Am putting this next up to read.


Julie Christine Thank you all so much for the comments. This book was a revelation to me. Such a powerful meditation on grief and communion with nature. I'm not sure I can advocate falconry-using any animal for sport troubles me deeply, but at least now I understand it.


Carol A very thorough review done beautifully. I knew I wanted to read H is for Hawk when I read your review.


Julie Christine Carol wrote: "A very thorough review done beautifully. I knew I wanted to read H is for Hawk when I read your review." Thank you!! Oh!


message 10: by Elyse (new) - added it

Elyse Walters Gorgeous review!!!!!!


message 11: by Elyse (new) - added it

Elyse Walters I read this last year-- blew my birdies around the house!!! Extraordinary....( yes, some said Helen was a little obsessive... but My God... it was one of the most exceptional books of the year IMO..,,
I became a little obsessive myself watching tons of u tubes after her book


Andrea Hessey Possibly the most perfect review I've ever read. Captures the heart and soul of this extraordinary book. Thank you !


Julie Christine Andrea wrote: "Possibly the most perfect review I've ever read. Captures the heart and soul of this extraordinary book. Thank you !" Oh Andrea, thank you! What a beautiful compliment!


Julie Christine Elyse wrote: "Gorgeous review!!!!!!"
Thank you, Elyse!


Kristine Wow such a great review!!! I KNEW you'd love it!!!


Kristine Wow such a great review!!! I KNEW you'd love it!!!


Kristine There were times I wanted to punch White in the face.


message 18: by Mona (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mona Beautiful review, which does justice to this wonderful book.


Julie Christine Kristine wrote: "Wow such a great review!!! I KNEW you'd love it!!!" You were so right. This was amazing. Thank you, KB!!


Julie Christine Kristine wrote: "There were times I wanted to punch White in the face." LOL. Yes!


Julie Christine Mona wrote: "Beautiful review, which does justice to this wonderful book."
Thank you, Mona!


Kathleen wonderful review. Thank you.


Julie Christine Kathleen wrote: "wonderful review. Thank you."
Thank you, Kathleen.


message 24: by Steve (last edited Oct 06, 2015 02:58PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Steve I need to give this book even more credit now that I've seen that it can inspire a review as beautiful as this. Great job, Julie!


Julie Christine Steve wrote: "I need to give this book even more credit now that I've seen that it can inspire a review as beautiful as this. Great job, Julie!"

How did I not see your comment before, Steve? What a wonderful thing to say and so meaningful coming from one whose reviews make me a little wobbly with wonder and admiration. Thank you!


Louise Annetta Great quote.


message 27: by Tom (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Brannigan Damn girl.......what a soulful review!!!


Julie Christine Tom wrote: "Damn girl.......what a soulful review!!!" Cheers, Tom. So glad you loved this. Julie


John of Canada I just happened on your review and I loved it!I was discussing books over the weekend and implored the people I was talking with to read H,and then saw your review.I got a new copy just to share.Thanks for a lovely reminder.


Julie Christine John of Canada wrote: "I just happened on your review and I loved it!I was discussing books over the weekend and implored the people I was talking with to read H,and then saw your review.I got a new copy just to share.Th..."

Thank you, John! Isn't it just an extraordinary book?!


back to top