I kept seeing H Is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald on Important Lists, since I first noticed it on Netgalley last year. I wondered if it was a children’s book (it’s not). I learned that it was about a woman who trains a hawk after the death of her father. What is the big deal about a woman and her bird? I thought. Finally, after seeing it praised everywhere, I gave in and read it. I’m not sure if it was all that I expected or not.
Helen has been obsessed with birds of prey and training them to hunt since she was a girl. She trained falcons in the past, but never a goshawk. Goshawks have a reputation as difficult birds, too wild for most people. After the sudden death of her father, Helen can’t stop thinking about goshawks. She remembered a book she read as a girl, The Goshawk by T.H. White, a harrowing tale (for the bird) of White’s attempt to train a goshawk.
Helen drops most of her relationships to train a young goshawk she names Mabel. She spends all of her time in her house alone with Mabel for months on end. I can only imagine the smell. When Helen and Mabel finally leave the house to continue training outdoors, Helen’s reclusiveness has made her nearly a little bit mad, and she shuns most people she encounters.
Helen describes the depths of her grief vividly throughout her memoir. She uses Mabel to avoid her normal life. Her teaching position ends and she doesn’t look for new work, she loses her house. It’s all Mabel, all the time. She spends so much time with the goshawk that she begins to believe she and the bird are the same. Sometimes her thoughts take bizarre turns.
Mirroring her own experiences with Mabel are White’s with his bird Gos. I really didn’t like these interludes. White was terrible to that bird, and MacDonald’s attempts to psychoanalyze him just irritated me. She feels a kinship to him because they are broken people, but I didn’t see them as all that similar.
For me, the most enjoyable parts of the book are the times Helen spends with Mabel training and hunting. Mabel’s personality shines through. The changes from companion to killer are beautifully written. Birds of prey are amazing to me. I once saw, or rather heard, a hawk take a blue jay from the air. All that was left was a cloud of blue feathers where the bird had been a second before. How people control that power is unfathomable. Have you read about the 13 year old Mongolian girl who trained an eagle? An eagle! They go after small dogs around here.
The written is lyrical, even though at times I didn’t know where she was going with it. There were passages about nature and animals that were my favorites. I keep thinking about H Is For Hawk even days after I finished.
H Is For Hawk is something really different. I’m not in love with that title though. It doesn’t say much about the book, other than there is a hawk in it. Stay tuned for my memoir C Is For Cat, a woman attempts to get her cat to stop hiding in the bathtub because he’s afraid of wind.