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H is for Hawk Paperback – 26 Feb 2015
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"It just sings. I couldn’t stop reading." (Mark Haddon)
"This beautiful book is at once heartfelt and clever in the way it mixes elegy with celebration: elegy for a father lost, celebration of a hawk found - and in the finding also a celebration of countryside, forbears of one kind and another, life-in-death. At a time of very distinguished writing about the relationship between human kind and the environment, it is immediately pre-eminent." (Andrew Motion)
"H is for Hawk is a dazzling piece of work: deeply affecting, utterly fascinating and blazing with love and intelligence… The result is a deeply human work shot through…with intelligence and compassion… I will be surprised if a better book than H is for Hawk is published this year." (Melissa Harrison Financial Times)
"I'm convinced it's going to be an absolute classic of nature writing." (Nick Barley Guardian)
"I can't remember the last time a book made me feel so many different things in such quick succession." (Rachel Cooke Guardian)
"[Macdonald’s] descriptive writing, startlingly and devilishly precise…is only the half of it. She has written her taming of Mabel like a thriller, slowly and carefully cranking the tension is that your stomach and heart leap queasily towards each other… Captivates." (Rachel Cooke Observer)
"Captivating… There is a highly polished brilliance to her writing. The English-speaking world has an old passion for books about creatures and captivating companions … Helen Macdonald looks set to revive the genre." (Guardian Mark Cocker)
"Nature-writing, but not as you know it. Astounding." (Bookseller)
"It is a mark of Macdonald’s achievement that so exultant a book can resolve itself in a sense of failure, yet leave the reader as uplifted as a raptor riding on a thermal." (Philip Hoare New Statesman)
"MacDonald’s prose is poetic, forensic, yet often capable of quickening the pulse. Her lexicon…is vivid and joyous, soaring as freely as birds do." (Benjamin Myers New Scientist)
From the Inside Flap
This is the Number One Bestseller; Winner of the Costa Book of the Year. Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. As a child, Helen Macdonald was determined to become a falconer, learning the arcane terminology and reading all the classic books. Years later, when her father died and she was struck deeply by grief, she became obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She bought Mabel for GBP800 on a Scottish quayside and took her home to Cambridge, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this wildest of animals. H is for Hawk is an unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald's struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk's taming and her own untaming. This is a book about memory, nature and nation, and how it might be possible to reconcile death with life and love.See all Product description
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Firstly, it is worth mentioning that the book was originally written with no intention of publication; instead I think it was to help the author to make sense of the trauma of losing her father. In the light of this it is difficult to see how it can be thought of as self-indulgent, at least at the time or writing, but perhaps you may question the decision to publish. My own view is that it is a brave person who bares themselves to public scrutiny in the way Helen Macdonald does here, and at the same time perhaps helps others to understand their own loss(es).
In essence the book tells the story of the author training a goshawk she purchase shortly after the death of her much loved and missed father. She parallels her story with that of T.H.White’s telling of his own failed experiences in his book Goshawk. For the most part I found this to be a 5* book but I'm giving it 4 because I didn't really see the relevance to the overall story of the section in which she offers her psychological interpretation of the books of White in order to suggest an understanding of his motivations behind his writings. If you are a White fan it may be of interest, but I'm afraid I found this element a bit tiresome.
I’ll finish with a small section of the book to give you a flavour of the style herein.
Having just flushed out a pheasant for the goshawk she writes:
"I reach down and start, unconsciously as a mother helping a child with her dinner, plucking the pheasant with the hawk. For the hawk. And when she starts eating, I sit on my heals and watch, watch her eat. Feathers lift, blown down the hedge, and catch in spiders’ webs and thorn branches. The bright blood on her toes coagulates and dries. Time passes. Benison of sunlight. A wind shifts the thistle stalks and is gone. And I start crying, soundlessly. Tears roll down my face. For the pheasant, for the hawk, for Dad and for all his patience, for that little girl who stood by a fence and waited for the hawks to come.”
Not bad eh?
I'm a bird watcher but that's not necessary to appreciate this book. It is supremely well written, lyrical, poetic, tough, everything. Helen took on the work of training a (captive hatched) Goshawk. She'd trained other raptors such as Kestrels, but it turns out that Goshawks are the most difficult. Someone said a Golden Eagle is a doddle compared with a Goshawk. It needs total commitment and access to the advice of an experienced mentor, which she had when she needed it most. To Helen (coping with her father's death in whatever way was going to work) nothing else mattered. At one stage she had no job and had to leave her University lodgings, but such concerns took second place to the bird. Then there's the whole TH White business, which she felt she needed to deal with too. These things are interwoven throughout the book. There are unannounced changes of time and context which mean you have to concentrate. That's not a criticism.
A complex and - sorry, this will sound pompous - I think truly important and serious book, which deserves all the awards and accolades it's received. Just glad I didn't miss out on hearing about this book and quickly deciding it was a must-read.
There are many lyrical scenes in which she brings the ancient landscape around Cambridge to life as she scrabbles through hedgerows, trying to put up pheasants for her gimlet-eyed hawk, mostly in winter and spring, when the 'torn paper lightness behind the sun (…) speaks of frost to come.' Though she is not sentimental about the countryside - which she emphasises can be used to proclaim an ethnic sovereignty which is false - she is quite exceptional in how she describes subtle shades of colour and foliage in a few deft touches.
There is a certain amount but (for me) not too much about hawks and hawking. The real focus is the writer’s fragile and changing state of mind: “I was in ruins ... trying to rebuild myself ... The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.” Gradually she finds her mind being taken over by hawk-ishness - 'the hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away' - but this brings greater loneliness, which she takes time to realise.
The author’s intense introspection is thankfully relieved by her parallel investigation of TH White (author of the Arthurian cycle which starts with The Sword in the Stone). White was a highly eccentric and lonely schoolmaster, who suddenly decided to train a hawk, with little or no knowledge beyond that gleaned from ancient texts. He wrote about this strange interlude in his life, which Macdonald unpicks with forensic psychological insight, which is surprisingly fascinating.
I heard her talk at the Bridport Literary Festival in the week it was announced that she had won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction ('H' was also the Costa Book of the Year'). She was mesmerizingly natural and personal, like her book. I asked her what bird she currently kept, and was surprised - but, on reflection, not surprised - when she replied that she had given up hawks and now had a parrot.
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