Macdonald w Raptor-the times UK

[Now: Helen Macdonald recently with a raptor. Photo from The Times, UK.]

Review: readers flock to Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk memoir for its savory braided structure, intense immersion, poetic prose.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Grove Press, 300 pp.

It is so fatally easy to make young children believe that they are horrible.— T.H. White, The Once and Future King

Macdonald w Mabel-her blog

[Then: Macdonald with Mabel, ca. 2008.]

In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald brings out the beauty and killing prowess of raptors used as hunting allies. She’s steeped in the ancient tradition of falconry, reduced, in our time, to a tiny, odd subculture. The hook for this book includes her selection of a notoriously temperamental goshawk to train instead of a comparatively easy species such as a peregrine falcon. She spends much time fretting over her hawk and frantically running after it, raising a gloved fist and blowing a whistle.

I should say her, not it: Macdonald’s goshawk is a girl. Endearingly dubbed Mabel, she is both gorgeous and a fierce avatar of death. So it’s all the more charming when Macdonald discovers that Mabel enjoys playing catch with crumpled paper wads. Mabel’s narrowed eyes mean mirth. But she’s a changeling. Triggered by sights and sounds, her quicksilver reactions—effectively her moods—are expressed in beating wings, biting beak, gripping talons.

H is for Hawk, the first memoir to win Britain’s Samuel Johnson Prize, is slow at first, and dense—this was my fresh-mind morning book for a good while before I adjusted to Macdonald’s rhythms. But heightened experiences appeal, and Macdonald evokes them in a narrative rife with savory juxtapositions. She braids three stories: taming and training the goshawk; coping with her father’s death and her disordered state; depicting novelist T.H. White’s own harrowing experience with a goshawk. White’s deeply damaged psyche and tormented life anger and chasten Macdonald in her mirroring pursuit.

We learn less about her backstory; Macdonald’s spare retelling may reflect the fabled British reserve, as well as her hunch about readers’ interests. Somehow this makes her memoir feel less damp with grief. Her father died; she bought a hawk. She is, however, grief-crazed before and during much of her hawking. A news photographer, her father had been her buddy. Unlike White, who was abused by his parents and at boarding school, Macdonald was nurtured, encouraged in her childhood rapture over winged predators.

Macdonald eschews dates, no doubt to make her story more timeless. After reading the memoir I studied its sketchy, seasonal clues. As I’ve pieced it together from the book, from reviews and interviews, and from her blog, her father dies of a sudden heart attack on a city street, while at work, in March 2007, when he is 67 and she is 37; in July 2008, some nine months later, she buys Mabel and trains and lives with her; the book closes in summer 2009.

Macdonald’s elliptical approach leads to similar conflations like this in Kathryn Schulz’s superb review and article for the New Yorker:

Helen Macdonald was in her third and final year as a research fellow at Cambridge, a prestigious postgraduate position, when her father died and, for eight hundred pounds sterling, she acquired a ten-week-old goshawk.

Hawk cover

For some, her leaps won’t matter a whit—or are part of Macdonald’s virtue: she has mastered the art of leaving out things. Others will feel unmoored. For me, without a clear timeline linked to plot developments in the foreground hawk drama, narrative momentum faded a wee bit. This made the book, which is nicely reflective, feel more discursive than it is.

As well as being a nature writer, Macdonald is a poet, which may incline her to pare connective tissue from her stories. Her fealty to her threads keeps them clean. You won’t learn from her memoir about any romantic ties, or anything about her past except glimpses of her dad and her birdy girlhood. She even omits far-flung adventures in training birds of prey, such as a stint breeding falcons for a royal family in United Arab Emirates. She’s not discursive in that  way. Her sharp focus here is her intense experience with one hawk, one death, one writer.

Here’s a spangled morning in a few strokes:

Last night the forecast was bad. A storm surge threatened to inundate East Anglia. All night I kept waking, listening to the rain, fearing for the caravans along the coast, their frail silver backs against the rain and rising seas. But the storm surge held back at the brink, and the morning dawned blue and shiny as a puddle.

 Here’s one of her meditations on meaning:

Hunting with a hawk took me to the very edge of being human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all. The hawk in flight, me running after her, the land and the air a pattern of deep and curving detail, sufficient to block out anything like the past or the future, so that the only thing that mattered were the next thirty seconds. I felt the curt lift of autumn breeze over the hill’s round brow, and the need to tack left, to fall over the leeward slope to where the rabbits were. I crept and walked and ran. I crouched. I looked. I saw more than I’d ever seen. The world gathered about me. It made absolute sense. But the only things I knew were hawkish things, and the lines that drew me across the landscape were the lines that drew the hawk: hunger, desire, fascination, the need to find and fly and kill.

Some nitty-gritty details of her lone, intense, antiquarian experience of living with a predator: her pockets, fridge, and freezer stuffed with dead chicks and raw meat; droppings in the TV room and dusting her clothes; white scars on her hands from beak and talons made to pierce and flay pheasants and rabbits. She evokes the quiddity—to use a Cambridge-ish word—of this fierce feathered creature and its unlikely potential for human partnership.

Braided structure, immersive experience, fine prose—these are why so many readers adore H is for Hawk.

Sept 2001 w gyrkin owned by friend

[Before: Helen Macdonald in 2001 with a friend’s gyrkin.]


  • What a very interesting and different sort of memoir this sounds like! It’s sort of as if the narrator were an arrow continually pointing to the hawk at her hand, when what one is interested in is investigating the nature and structure of the arrow. But, I’m sure that in the world of memoir, as in others, there’s room for all sorts, and this one may even be a welcome change from what you mention as the American memoirs, which sound soggy with grief. For the record, I think you managed well in your memoir to show a sort of restraint while still memorializing your father, and so perhaps you inhabit that middle territory between Macdonald and the usual American memoir. The Golden Mean, shall we say?

    • Richard says:

      Victoria, you have clarified an aspect of my admiration for H is for Hawk. That is, it has a stealth memoir quality of her seeming to work from her sensibility more than work in her autobiography. There is an endless temptation in memoir to explain everything, and she avoids that with her focus.

  • Annette says:

    Another book to add to my summer reading list. (-:

Leave a Reply