H is for Hawk, Winner of Samuel Johnson Prize, Costa Prize

H is for Hawk and for Helen Macdonald, and her Hibernation from Humanity in coping with her father’s untimely death and her own pending transition, as her Cambridge University fellowship is coming to an end and she must soon leave the comfortable country cottage that came with it.

H is for HawkResponding to an instinctive need to escape reality she obtains a goshawk, retreats into her cottage, unplugs her telephone and focuses on training the raptor at the same time observing her own behaviour which begins to resemble the bird’s.

“The kind of madness I had was different. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world. The problem was that it had nothing to work with. There was no partner, no children, no home. No nine-to-five job either. So it grabbed anything it could. It was desperate, and it read off the world wrong.”

In all her years as a falconer, she had never wanted to fly a goshawk, she feared them and comes to realise she has taken on the attitudes of those who glorified falcons, bird of nobility, of aristocracy, men of privilege, those who mocked the humble goshawk. But times and perceptions had changed, and getting to know and train a goshawk was the challenge she set for herself.

“Goshawks were ruffians: murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious and foreign.”

She waits on a Scottish pier for the Belfast ferry, which is transporting a man and his goshawk, soon enough she will become the owner of the bird she names Mabel.

The days pass and her focus must be with Mabel, she spurns human company, spending her free time in the company of T.H White, rereading The Goshawk, a book she had read as a child when her passion for birds was in its formative stages. White wrote about his failed attempt to train a goshawk, his account wrapped up in childhood fears and inclinations. Helen Macdonald reads around the life and writings of this man in order to understand him, as if to explain to her childhood self, why he did what he did.

“I understood why people considered it a masterpiece. For White made falconry a metaphysical battle. Like Moby-Dick or The Old Man and the Sea, The Goshawk was a literary encounter between animal and man that reached back to Puritan traditions of spiritual contest: salvation as a stake to be won in a contest against God.”

Mable and Helen playing with a paper telescope Photo by Christina McLeish @_Xtin_

Mable and Helen playing with a paper telescope
Photo by Christina McLeish @_Xtin_

It is a fascinating and insightful read as the author shares her commitment to an obsessive need to tame the hawk and exposes her vulnerability in coping with all that she wishes to avoid. Writing about the training of a goshawk is also a way of avoiding talking about herself. We must read outside the narrative of the book to know more about Helen’s previous experience and expertise with hawks, we can tell she is no amateur, however she avoids looking back or enlightening the reader too much about her past, we are kept very much in the present, as unnerved as she is by her descent into hawk-like behaviours and instincts.

I love nature writing that stimulates the imagination, that offers more than just an observation of what the author sees, but describes the environment and what an observer brings to it, one that provokes us to think about our own relationship to birds, animals and nature. Helen Macdonald comes to her goshawk challenge with fixed ideas about the need to escape all, she sets herself up like a scientific hypothesis, begins her transformation into a hawk like creature and then slowly deconstructs it, coming back to the realisation of her own humanity.

“Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

Falconry_sport_of_kings_(1920)

Falconry, the sport of Kings Source: wikipedia

She reminds us of the place and symbolism of falconry within humanity, its association with the hunt, with death, war, power and subservience.

It is unique in being a woman’s perspective within a heritage that has long been the domain of men, nobility, landowners, gentry, medieval lords.

It is refreshingly alive, honest and knowledgeable, exhibiting how our weaknesses and our strengths advance and recede in unison as naturally as the ebb and flow of tides.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

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21 thoughts on “H is for Hawk, Winner of Samuel Johnson Prize, Costa Prize

  1. During autumn I often notice nature and birds more than at any other time of the year. I agree that if you take time to observe the environment it can influence your thoughts and actons. There is one sound that always makes me stop what I’m doing and listen. At twilight they start coming and fly through the night. Honking, flapping and flying in a V formation clusters of geese arrive in The Netherands to land on the Frisan Coast, to spend the winter. They escape the blustry and harsh winter of Siberia and hunker down here in our sea climate. Mild winters help them survive. I often close my books and stand outside at night listening to their call and knowing winter is just around the corner. Thanks for this lovely review…..

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    • I love that Nancy, what a privilege to be able to listen to and witness that part of their migration. That primal call of nature, making us cast our distractions aside to bear witness to the passing of the seasons, the migration of birds, it is amazing that we can still be observers of this phenomena.

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  2. Beautiful review, Claire. I really want to read this book, but need to find the right moment. My own father died suddenly when I was a young girl, and while many years have passed since then I know that reading H for Hawk will trigger memories of that time.

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    • Thanks Jacqui. Interesting that you mention the memories that reading a book like this can evoke. I read a quite extraordinary review by a reader, who shared some similar experiences with the author, recalling the death of her father which made it a unique reading and no doubt quite bizarre reading experience. You can read Jess’s review here.

      I would say that Helen Macdonald doesn’t focus too much on her relationship or memories of her father, it’s more her own mental state and the consequence of his death that she depicts, using the training of a hawk as a kind of self-appointed therapy, once that she must make some adjustments to when she realises it isn’t quite the healing salve she had hoped for.

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      • Thanks, Claire – that’s useful to knowe. Yes, I recall Jess’s review, and I’ve just read it again. Quite a powerful and unsettling experience in many ways. In fact, it was reading Jess’s piece that made me realise just what an emotional read H for Hawk might be for me too (albeit for different reasons). I really want to read it, but just need to pick a time that’s not too close to my father’s anniversary or birthday.

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  3. I’m so glad you connected with this book, Claire. You’ve given some profound thoughts about it and I appreciate your direct and honest style of discussing the meaning of a book.

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    • Thank you and yes I hope many more people are intrigued to pick it up and read it, it’s a wonderful example of how great creative non-fiction can be and how nature writing can touch on other genres to make a riveting read.

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  4. Pingback: Top Reads 2014 | Word by Word

  5. Pingback: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald | JacquiWine's Journal

  6. Oh, you read it a long time ago! This is a wonderful review. I particularly love your second and third last paragraphs. Beautifully encapsulated!

    I too love good nature writing that includes reflection and understanding of complex relationships and meanings we have with and about the environment.

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    • Nature writing is one of my flags and so I spotted this early on, after reading a wonderful review by Eric @lonesomereader. Knew straight away it was my kind of book and so it was, the nature writing and observations, the twin narrative of reading Gos and trying to understand what he was going through elevate its literary heights, not to mention the pull of training such an exotic bird, something few of us can imagine and certainly not as a form of therapy!

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      • Do you have some favourite examples of nature writing, Claire? I rather like it myself. And yes, I must say that I was intrigued by the subject matter when I first heard of it. I didn’t know about the TH White aspect though until a visiting friend told me the day I started reading it. That added to the interest for me.

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  7. It’s a little rare to find that form of ‘creative’ non fiction kind of nature writing, but Kathleen Jamie is one of my favourites, I’ve reviewed Findings on here and still have to read Sightlines, which some say is even better. Barry Lopez is a fabulous nature writer, I’ve read his work Artic Dreams (reviewed here) and actually just recently acquired a copy of some of his other essays in a book entitled About This Life.

    Last year I read another classic, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind (reviewed here) which is the first in her trilogy of the sea and is written in three sections, following the lives of three different sea creatures, just fabulous. I’ve just got hold of book 2 The Sea Around Us which I’ll be reading this year. When I reviewed this I remember reading in the book her mentioning this title as her favourite, which was also recommended by others to be a must read for those who love the sea, it’s Henry Beston’s The Outermost House.

    Terry Tempest Williams is another very interesting nature writer, I’ve read her book When Women Were Birds (reviewed) and want to read Refuge and then there’s Rebecca Solnit who wrote Wanderlust and more recently The Faraway Nearby (reviewed) which I was fortunate to be in London and hear her speak about. These two combine aspects of memoir in their writings, but are fascinating voices both, more essayists whereas Lopez and Jamie are more poetic. Have fun checking them out, I hope you find something among them that appeals! I am sure you will.

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    • Thanks Claire. They sound good. I think I have a Barry Lopez in my TBR (and I recollect that Macdonald does mention him in her book). Of course I’ve heard of Rachel Carson. The only writers that immediately popped into my mind when I asked you this question were John Muir and Edward Abbey (I’d love to read his Desert solitaire).

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