Nov 28, 2015

H is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald

I have spent two weeks to read this book, and then a day and a half trying to think what to say about it. It's one I took at a very slow pace, because the book nearly demanded it and I found myself deliberately reading in long pauses, stopping after just a page or two to set it aside, wanting to let the words sink in, the descriptions linger as vivid images in my mind.

It's that good a book. It's about the author's period of grief when her father suddenly died, which she assuaged by taking up a new hawk to train. Macdonald tells how she'd been obsessed with falconry since childhood, reading the books and watching the skies and eventually training her own hawks to fly. But she'd always avoided goshawks, a species with a strong reputation for being difficult and moody. Alone in a small house she slowly eases into the hawk's trust, teaching it to associate her with food, and the relationship that slowly unfolds between them is nothing short of amazing. It's not a friendship or dependency, but more of a working partnership; the hawk learns she will feed it, take it places to fly, flush game for it.... The passages that describe the author's walks through the countryside tracking her hawk, watching it gain hunting skills, are the solid type of nature writing I love. Putting you solidly into a place, a perspective, you've never seen before, the feel of the elements, the response and senses of the animals. Macdonald herself feels more aligned with the hawk's outlook than any human one for a long time until she starts to work her way out of grief. Her story is so very personal, and so close to nature one and the same.

It's also an examination of the art of falconry, told from a very personal experience. Lots of terminology and skills and bygone writers on the subject explained. All quite fascinating. A large thread in the book reveals her unfolding thoughts on T.H. White's book The Goshawk (which I've never read). In it White related how he battled wills with his own hawk, and all his erroneous methods, driven by his own problems which it seems he often took out on the bird. It's disturbing to read about, makes me wonder if I really ever want to read it myself. It makes a really interesting foil to Macdonald's own story, throwing a mirror and a light on her own methods and interpretations on how to read the hawk's body language, how to respond to it, how to treat it properly. Of course, she did have bad days, make her own mistakes, get discouraged at times. And took risks letting the hawk fly when it really wasn't in proper condition later on, just compelled to see what it would do, to let it ride its instinctive nature to the full. There are understandably lots of scenes with bloody death- rabbits, pheasants and other animals clutched by the hawk, and the author herself has to lay hand on the dying animals, has to feed her hawk dead chicks, quail and other fresh meat when confined in the house. That can be difficult to read about, but she makes it all sound so natural, if you're keeping a hawk.

So much more I could say: but you should just go read it! I will, again. This is definitely a book I want to own someday. I just can't describe how good the writing style is, the voice that lays bare so much about nature and the land and this predatory bird, this fiercely alive goshawk at her side.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 5/5         300 pages, 2014

more opinions:
Farm Lane Books Blog
Vulpes Libris
Olduvai Reads
Desperate Reader
Shelf Love


bermudaonion said...

Wow, this is going on my wish list for sure!

Jeane said...

Oh, I forgot to mention the hawk wasn't like all the ominous reports she'd heard. She found it to be relatively calm and even playful. It was also interesting she mentioned how popular opinion (among falconers) about what goshawks are like altered between decades, as she read through older literature about them.

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

I didn't get all the way through this book (my failing, not its), but I remember really wondering about the person who was supposed to get the hawk she ended up getting. You remember that bit? Where she talks the hawk-wallah or whatever his job title is into giving her the better, nicer hawk instead of the mean, enormous one? I couldn't help thinking about the poor sucker who ended up with the crummy hawk. :p

Jeane said...

Jenny- my thought was that guy probably figured his hawk was just all that goshawks were reputed to be. I also thought that perhaps the author's hawk just happened to be an uncommonly calm goshawk, that hers was nice by anomaly.

Stefanie said...

I haven't heard anything bad yet about this book. I tried to avoid being interested in it because of all the hype, but I'm going to give in. It's on my library list so who knows when my turn for it will actually come round, but it will!