H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
I recently attended a day course in English Literature run in my village by Ann Scott. Ann is a most knowledgeable and erudite woman who is a lecturer at Glasgow University, Glasgow, Scotland. In addition to this, she runs English Literature classes in the village. Often, her classes study Shakespeare plays or poetry but this summer term the text covered was H for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. She is an English writer, naturalist, and an Affiliated Research Scholar at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England, Department of History and Philosophy of Science. I had been planning to read the memoir H for Hawk since it won the 2014 Costa Book of the Year Award. Ann’s course made me prioritise that.
Macdonald found herself approaching her 40s without family, job or home and then in mourning. She was very close to her father had been an initial coach and companion in her childhood passion for birds so, when her father died suddenly, she had to distract herself from the white heat of grief. She felt compelled to do something extraordinary. And so, after filling her freezer with hawk food, the historian and nature writer drove up to Scotland, handed over £800 to a breeder, and headed home with her precious cargo – a baby goshawk named Mabel – in a box on the back seat. Then, curtains drawn, phone unplugged, she set about training her deadly bird of prey in her small Cambridge house.
H is for Hawk is at once a misery memoir, as the author grapples with the grieving process, and a falconer’s diary about the hard-won trust between hawk and human. She also splices into her narrative a biographical account of a literary hero and fellow austringer, T H White. White’s own strange account of his efforts to train a goshawk in the late 1930s using only medieval methods. When the bird finally escaped and his austringer’s life ended in failure, White shelved the accompanying manuscript until it was rediscovered by an editor and later published to acclaim as The Goshawk (1951). This book, that Macdonald had read since childhood, partly inspired her lifelong passion for hawks and hawking. The reader can see how the bird’s role as a metaphor for the outsider has great significance in H is for Hawk. It informs Macdonald’s own self-revelations, but also her account of White, who was the ultimate hawking misfit. However, I found the many diversions back to White’s work tiresome. I had not read the book and have no interest in doing so.
However, although there are glowing tributes to her father as a photojournalist and as a parent, but he never comes to life as a fully formed character. In consequence, the reader is less moved by him and by the grief‑laced tributes of his daughter than by Macdonald’s sympathetic account of White’s troubled genius. The reader is also presented with the author’s repeated, if unsparingly honest declarations of grief. I lost count of the number of times she breaks down or bursts into tears in the book. The total effect is an excess of emotion. I am sorry to say that for me it was torturous. I am not ashamed: I found the whole book dull in the extreme.
I am not really interested in the finesse required to train a hawk, but I thought I would enjoy the use of the hawk as a metaphor and the description of the father/daughter relationship. Unfortunately, these were not sufficient draw me into the book. The quality of the writing in H for Hawk is sublime. The content of the memoir did not reach that height for me.
- Posted in: biography ♦ Book Club ♦ Book Reviews
- Tagged: Glasgow University, Cambridge, England, Glasgow, goshawk, H for Hawk, Helen Macdonald, Scotland, T H White, The Goshawk, University of Cambridge, Valerie Penny