The book I have read : H is for Hawk

The photo is from the Daily Mail


article-2704475-1FF293F400000578-208_233x350H 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.


6 thoughts on “The book I have read : H is for Hawk”

  1. This book sounds fascinating. Hawks and falcons are so beautiful and fierce that it would seem an encompassing effort to learn about their otherness enough to train them. This might, in fact, prove an effective antidote to grief. There is a castle above the town of Varenna in Italy where they have demonstrations of hawking and have a variety of birds trained to fly out and come back. It was interesting, but as you mention, the birds are so other that there was an alien aspect to it, even though it is part of our history.

    Liked by 1 person

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