H is for Hawk


If you had told me that I would pick up a book about hawks and loved every single minute of it, I might have laughed. For sure, hawks are lovely, almost regal birds, but they’re not something I’ve ever given a second thought to. I’m not very fond of birds, having been woken up by one too many monstrous seagulls squawking just outside my window when I lived in Brighton for a year. Hawks and birds of prey aren’t exactly my (or most people’s) idea of a pet.

So what drew me to H is for Hawk? The intriguing woodcut cover perhaps? Its winning the 2014 Costa book award.

Well whatever it was that actually made me download the library e-book and open it up on the kindle to read, it was meant to be.

How to begin with this book?
Yes there is an actual hawk. A goshawk in particular. One named Mabel.
Also there is intriguingly a lot about TH White, author of the Once and Future King, which I read many years ago but didn’t think much of. (I do realise it’s a classic. Doesn’t mean I have to like it, right?)
And there is grief. Essentially this is a story of how Macdonald coped with her sadness, her grief of losing a loved one. Some people turn to alcohol or therapists, she decides to get a goshawk.

But the way her life changes with the goshawk is fascinating.

Their existence gives the lie to the thought that the wild is always something untouched by human hearts and hands. The wild can be human work.

“As I sit there happily feeding titbits to the hawk, her name drops into my head. Mabel. From amabilis, meaning loveable, or dear. An old, slightly silly name, an unfashionable name. There is something of the grandmother about it: antimacassars and afternoon teas.”

What fascinates me is that she would bring her hawk out. Can you imagine, walking around the streets of Cambridge, a hawk at hand? Oddly she is ignored by most people.

He nods, and I do too, and in some wonder, because I am beginning to see that for some people a hawk on the hand of a stranger urges confession, urges confidences, lets you speak words about hope and home and heart. And I realise, too, that in all my days of walking with Mabel the only people who have come up and spoken to us have been outsiders: children, teenage goths, homeless people, overseas students, travellers, drunks, people on holiday. ‘We are outsiders now, Mabel,’ I say, and the thought is not unpleasant. But I feel ashamed of my nation’s reticence. Its desire to keep walking, to move on, not to comment, not to interrogate, not to take any interest in something peculiar, unusual, in anything that isn’t entirely normal.

The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk.

And while I didn’t quite enjoy White’s book – although I am now thinking that I ought to give it, or at least his other works, another try, because if Helen MacDonald talks so much about it, I feel like I should read it too – I loved how books and other authors are related to in H is for Hawk.  

It reminded me of Philip Pullman’s children’s fantasy series His Dark Materials, in which each person has a daemon, an animal that is a visible manifestation of their soul and accompanies them everywhere. When people are separated from their daemons they feel pain. This was a universe very close to mine. I felt incomplete unless the hawk was sitting on my hand: we were parts of each other. Grief and the hawk had conspired to this strangeness.

H is for Hawk was a surprisingly absorbing read, a thoughtful and unflinching chronicle of bereavement. Is it memoir? Nature writing? Literary? It’s a little of everything and it is brilliant.


  1. There is a woman in our neighbourhood who frequents the coffee shop around the corner and brings her parrot with her in the nice weather. I hadn’t realized how much I missed seeing the two of them sitting on the patio until they reemerged a couple of weeks ago (when temperatures allowed). Funny that nobody seems to give them a second-glance either. I’m really looking forward to this book although like you I wasn’t a big T.H. White fan; I think I’d expected something more magickal when I was a kid and it was too serious for my liking or something.


  2. Oh, I’m hoping the Hong Kong library will have this book in their catalogue. So far, no! Sob. But I’ve been keeping myself busy with other books.


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