The photo is from the Daily Mail
H is for Hawk is the title of the book written by Helen Macdonald, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize, awarded to the best non-fiction book in 2014.
Macdonald’s story focuses on the period following the sudden death of her father, while Macdonald was at the University of Cambridge. The story is about her mourning, the way she plunged into depression and tried to get through her grief by training a goshawk, a falcon species that are not easily tamed.
Macdonald has been interested in these birds from a very young age and she does not hesitate to mention the many publications she read on the subject. She also explains the specific vocabulary relating to this area of knowledge, the food this bird of prey needs, its ideal weight, etc. All these rather technical explanations are interspersed with her reflections on the difficulty of mourning a loved one, as well as the characteristic features of this wild bird that still resists any domestication, unlike other animals. This is also what seems to attract her to them.
She comes and goes between her experience with Mabel, the goshawk she acquired at a cost of 800 pounds, after the death of her father, and her readings, especially that of TH White, an author who recounted in a books his failure to tame a hawk, that she compares with her own doubts and struggles with Mabel, bought near the Scottish border. We learn further that in the months she dedicated herself to Mabel, she accumulated unpaid bills, she had to leave Cambridge and gave up a job offer in Germany. It is only when she took Mabel (who later died of an airborne fungal infection) in an aviary so she could redo its feathers, that she overcame her depression and mourning.
This is a book with an unusual theme, which makes it no less interesting. It took me time to get carried away by the theme, perhaps because the passages on White seemed to me less interesting. The relationship Macdonald has with her bird is however so well made that I seemed to live these moments with the author.
I however could not help but wonder how Macdonald could live with the nature of this bird of prey, which kills cruelly and even if it is part of its nature and that these sacrifices participate in the natural balance. We still feel the humanity of the author, who admits to breaking the neck of the victims of Mabel to prevent the suffering in the clutches of her beloved bird. I doubt I can ever love a bird at this point. I remembered, however, that it quite often happened to me to admire the grace of these birds of prey in what seemed to me a dance in the sky, even though I knew that all this was unfolding with the aim of catching a prey that would be sacrificed without mercy. Macdonald talks about it, a little, but not enough to satisfy me. A very good book, then, but perhaps not for everyone.
The question which this book has not answered is why humans are involved in this training and how it is different from that which would be done by the birds’ parents from. The book would have seemed to me even more interesting if Macdonald had tried to answer this question.