…High-Intensity Reading. And what a read indeed. I could not put this book down, even when I was not reading. It became for me like my very own hawk – always watching and waiting in the room, ever present, until I could next pick it up again.
Helen Macdonald’s award winning book, H is for Hawk is the story of how she comes to terms with the death of her father, while also, and because of her time spent, training a goshawk. It is a magnificent account of the intricacies of falconry, as well as a highly personal confession about one of the most difficult things someone can experience. A complete page turner, I recommend this book unreservedly.
Read on if you would like to know more detail about my thoughts. I have tried to avoid plot spoilers, but have included quotes and references to material throughout the book.
Macdonald quotes the falconer and scientist Profession Tom Cade, who once described falconry as a kind of ‘high-intensity birdwatching’ (p177). But through her experiences with her goshawk, she had decided that this was not right at all:
“it was more like gambling, though the stakes were infinitely bloodier. At its heart was a willed loss of control. You pour your heart, your skill, your very soul, into a thing – into training a hawk…then relinquish control over it. That is the hook….You lose yourself in it…It was as ruinous, in a way, as if I’d taken a needle and shot myself with heroin.”
And oh, how we lose ourselves with her. Macdonald takes us on a totally compelling journey as she deals with the loss of her father and works with her goshawk. Her grief is as raw as our experience of her relationship with the hawk and with nature itself. There are no holds barred.
Two themes constantly recur through Macdonald’s poetic and mesmerising narrative: time-shifts and other worlds; and weather metaphors.
Describing her initial feelings after her father had died, Macdonald says (p16) “Time didn’t run forwards any more. It…flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards”.
Speaking about a goshawk handed in to a bird-of-prey centre, we are told that she was “beautiful, like a granite cliff or a thunder storm” (p18). She was unhurt, so able to fly off. So quickly did she disappear, that MacDonald describes the moment “as if she’d found a rent in the damp Gloucestershire air and slipped through it”.
In one description of Macdonald’s new hawk (p82), we learn that “there’s a strange grey tint to her that is felt, rather than seen, a kind of silvery light like a rainy sky reflected from the surface of a river…she seems neither bird nor reptile, but a creature shaped by a million years of evolution for a life she’s not yet lived”.
Elsewhere, there is such beautiful prose that it makes one want to weep: “Vast flocks of fieldfares netted the sky, turning it to something strangely like a sixteenth-century sleeve sewn with pearls” (p20).
And then there are the fascinating and ever-deepening ties that develops between Macdonald and her goshawk: “to train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so you come to understand its moods” (p86). She goes on to quote Keats, who referred to one’s “chameleon quality, the ability to ‘tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment'”.
This is a book which makes one look afresh at man’s links with nature. In a time when we are rightly focused on global, big-picture problems, it nevertheless reminds us of the values we derive from being individually and inextricably bound to our own heritage and community.
Note: all page references are from the paperback published by Vintage Books 2014.