H is for Hawk is an unusual choice for me – I’m not usually a great reader of non-fiction or biographys, and I’ll be honest here, I mostly picked it up for the beautiful cover. Yes, I am that shallow. But sometimes, a bit of serendipity works it’s magic and I’ve discovered a new favourite, a classic in the making.
Winner of the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction and the 2014 Costa Book of the Year, H is for Hawk is the memoir of Helen Macdonald, focusing on the aftermath of losing her beloved father. An avid hawker/falconer all her life, she decides that to help her through her grief, she adopts what many see as the most challenging bird; a goshawk. It’s an intense training regime that require strict discipline and periods of isolation. At first Helen revels in this. Alone with her hawk, Mabel, she can focus all her attention on her and ignore her grief, too painful to deal with head on.
At the same time, Helen revisits a book she read, and hated, as a child – T.H. White’s The Goshawk. As a child she saw it as a ridiculous book, a guide on how not to train your hawk and she detested White for his treatment of his bird. As as adult however, she see’s parallels with her own life – not in the training of Mabel, but in the way that they both hid behind their birds. Helen realises that in taming Mabel, she is becoming wild – avoiding people, ignoring her grief, and thinking only in terms of a hawk.
H is for Hawk is a moving, poetic exploration of grief, the call of the wild and the bonds between man and beast (or woman and bird!). Even as someone with no previous interest in hawking, Helen hooks the reader into this strange world where soaring triumph can all too quickly turn into crushing despair, which for anyone dealing with bereavement is all too familiar. I found this book endlessly fascinating – I fell for Mabel almost as hard as Helen did and was desperate to follow Helen’s story to a happy(ier) ending. I really highly recommend H is for Hawk for everyone, regardless of your usual tastes.