My book review of Helen Macdonald’s memoir “H is for Hawk”, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book Award.
H is for Hawk is a book that can sound quite cool and quite uncool at the same time. When people asked me what I was reading, I told them it’s “this story about a woman who decided to train a goshawk to heal her sadness cuz her dad died”. And that’s really it. The premise of this poignant and poetic memoir is very simple, -the sudden death of Helen Macdonald’s father, and then her decision to train a goshawk.
However, the book is not as simple as it sounds. The cool part of the book is everything that you can’t learn from just a story outline. When you ask a person about a book, s/he cannot tell you how the story unfolds because that would spoil it; as well, there is no way the person could tell you about the language and the ingenuity of how each chapter is constructed. That is why you need to read this book about trying to run away from human life and then realizing that the wild and the human society are not mutually exclusive. The lesson I learned from the book is this: there are so many things you can’t learn without actually training a hawk, yet there are even more things you can’t learn without being with people and carrying on.
So how does this story really start? You open the book and just suddenly read about Helen, a historian at Cambridge University, driving to the wild to find goshawks. An avid bird-lover and an experienced falconer, Helen explains that goshawks are different from other falcons. They are “bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier”, she writes, and she finds them more mesmerizing. Then she tells you her father died. The void in her heart is so big that she needs something big (literally) to distract her.
Helen decides to train a goshawk.
She went to Scotland to get it, but her encounter with Mabel, the hawk that ended up being hers, was quite weird yet beautiful. The hawk seller brought two hawks. The first one was younger, and seemed to Helen “a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel… Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water”, but after all the marvelling Helen found out that this one not hers. The one she was supposed to get was bigger and “blank and crazy”. She panicked and begged the man to give her the first hawk instead. The man agreed, and so began her life with and only with Mabel.
Like Helen’s encounter with the hawk, my story with this book is a bit bizarre. The first time I looked for it was last summer at Yale University. They were sold out. Then after moving to Toronto I kept checking for it at Indigo bookstores, yet it was always hardcover and too expensive, so I never bought it. Then during November break at an old bookstore at the little town Niagara on the Lake, my dad secretly bought it for me. It was still hardcover and $32, but well, at least it fluttered into my life like a hawk, so I began reading it.
Sometimes it’s hard to keep reading a non-fiction with enthusiasm. Sometimes I stop for a while, and then pick it up again. It was a tour de force, muddy and sad like Cambridge countryside, yet it had a nice slow flow to it, just like Helen’s actual process of training Mabel.
The whole book is like a hawk. The language was poetic, throbbing and painfully real, like feathers that can shine, or get dirty, or break. Every chapter is also written in a smart way. Macdonald would talk about her life with Mabel, and then about a predecessor, T H White, who trained a goshawk and wrote the book The Goshawk. There is a spiritual bond between the author and White. White, a writer, a homosexual sadist, tried to train his Gos to escape reality. The whole book H is for Hawk flows along 2 threads- Helen’s training of Mabel and the life of White.
I slowed down my reading of the book every now and then, but when I almost reached the ending, I could not put down the book. It is where the two treads come together. You might imagine something like Taming of the Shrew, – Mabel gets tamed, Helen feels satisfied and her sadness is healed. But no. While Helen expected Mabel to help her escape the human society, Mabel actually acted as a lubricant to bring Helen back to her normal life. Training her hawk in Cambridge, Helen expected people to see her as a weirdo, but Mabel actually brought joggers, passers-by and professors to come talk with her.
I do not want to spoil the story, so I shall just tell you that at the end Mabel makes Helen feel safe and warm instead of an emotional mess and a hermit. Mabel, a beautiful piece of the wild, actually brought Helen from the wild to a wonderful place where wilderness and humanity coexist.
I do not suppose that I can word it any better, so I will just quote Daily Telegraph. H is for Hawk is “a soaring triumph”.