‘H is for Hawk’ – Book Review

This article originally appeared on Lit To Lens on Aug. 12, 2016.

Title: H is for Hawk
Author: Helen Macdonald
Year Of Publication: 2014
Genre: Memoir

Grief is a terrible thing. It’s a black hole. It consumes. And while it consumes, we feel its weight. To escape from grief is also a terrible thing, but for different reasons. It’s terrifying to re-enter life feeling incomplete. Some do try, though they fail. This happens every day.

Others try and succeed, occasionally with outside help. Helen Macdonald is such a person. In her 2014 memoir, H is for Hawk, Macdonald recounts the loss of her father. To cope, Macdonald, a historian with year and years of falconry experience, arranges the purchase of a goshawk – what is essentially the Cadillac of hawks.

It’s an alarming beautiful and powerful creature, one that isn’t easily trained. Macdonald spends the better part of the narrative recounting her efforts training the goshawk, which she names ‘Mabel.’ What results is a cross between field manual and personal rumination – on goshawks, nature, life, and death. She feeds Mabel dead chicks she keeps in her freezer and lets the hawk fly with jesses (leather straps) to accumulate her to the outside world.

The two bond. They become one. Macdonald cracks the necks of rabbits and pheasants that Mabel tracks per her biological impulses, and Mabel presents an obvious conversation piece for the outwardly withdrawn and reticent Macdonald. They’re a good pair.

As they continue to hunt, Macdonald recedes further from her friends, her job, and the industrialized world, falling for the natural world that Mabel unlocks for her. But she realizes that’s not the life she wants. That “hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks,” as she says.

By the end, she finds her way back into society, with friends and whatever new normal exists after her father has gone. She has to give Mabel away for the winter to molt, and it’s a sad goodbye, but it’s only temporary. There are more summers to be had between them.

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