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H is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald

Well what more is there to say about this much lauded literary tour de force? Helen MacDonald is a falconer, author and an academic so her credentials are impeccable for writing a book about training a rare bird of prey. But it was the sudden death of her beloved father which sent her into a spiral of grief and, as she says herself, temporary insanity, that made her attempt to train a goshawk. A reputedly difficult and ornery bird this was definitely no mean feat. And behind her desire to tame this specific bird of prey was her obsession with the book THE GOSHAWK by the writer T H White. Describing how she became infatuated with Whiteís book at the age of eight one gets the impression of a rather odd and precocious little girl. On re-reading the book MacDonald picks up on the authorís troubled childhood, his alleged latent homosexuality his sadomasochistic tendencies and his alcoholism. I really enjoyed the passages about White. His loneliness is profound and the descriptions of his failed attempts at training the hawk are tragic. Itís easy to see how the writer was enthralled by this book and how she turned to it again when her own life fell apart.

Thereís no doubt the writing is very moving, the descriptive passages stunning, the lovely arcane language of the falconer poetic and appealing and I can see why H IS FOR HAWK has attracted so much praise. But, sadly, I just could not get past the fact that this is a wild animal that she keeps in her living room, that she calls Mabel, that she takes out into the Cambridgeshire countryside on leashes, that she acts as a beater for when hunting, that the animal has to be kept cooped up in an aviary for the moulting season. It just feels wrong. When she finally decides itís time to release the bird without its leashes I kept willing Mabel to fly away. Maybe I missed the point.

H IS FOR HAWK was the overall winner for the 2015 Costa Prize and the winner of the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction.

Published by Jonathan Cape Ė 283pp

Irene Haynes


James H
I just read The Goshawk by T H White after reading H is for Hawk and was bowled over by it. Both fascinating in their own way.

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