Book: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Reviewer: Jeriann

Age/Genre: Adult Memoir

Content Notes: This book talks extensively about grief due to the death of a parent

My local library has a monthly book club and, though I work during their meeting times and have not yet been able to attend, I do check their website occasionally to see if any of the books they’re reading interest me. The one they read in November, H is for Hawk, looked just up my alley, being a nature-based memoir heavy with literature references.

H is for Hawk starts with the sudden death of Helen Macdonald’s father. Macdonald decides to train a Goshawk to occupy her time and come to terms with her grief. She has trained falcons in the past, but never this type, which is a notoriously wild and difficult bird to tame.

When I started H is for Hawk, I loved it. It reminded me of the science writing class I took in college. The descriptions of nature drew me in and made me excited to read more. The setting in England made this more than just a book about falconry, but also an interesting look at another culture. Macdonald takes several opportunities to talk about the history of falconry and how it shaped Britain.

Early on, Macdonald introduces us to her fascination with T.H. White, an author who wrote a book about hawking, which she has complex mixed feelings about. I realized about three-quarters through the novel that H is for Hawk is somewhat of a tribute to and emulation of White. In his book, The Goshawk, White describes his experiences training a Goshawk. H is for Hawk does the same for MacDonald. She explores her personal state during the process, comparing it with White’s. She did a lot of research, reading through White’s journals, letters, and other available documents to put the pieces together of what was happening behind the scenes as he trained his hawk.

The result is interesting. I do like a lot of what Macdonald did, but I struggled through this book once I got a few chapters in. I’d read a chapter or two, then put it down and not really think about picking it up for a few days. Finally, after weeks of little progress, I forced myself to power through it. The thing is, when I read it in large chunks, I found a lot of great things in this book; the emotions are real, the author is honest about her mistakes, and the historical elements exploring White’s life and career were really interesting. So why did I have to force myself to read it?

I’m not huge on Macdonald’s writing style in this book, which I think in a lot of ways is similar to White’s. She tries to put her daily observations into a historical context that, at the end of the day, doesn’t grab me. White fills his retellings of Arthurian legend with grandiose ponderings on Britain and meaning and life and Macdonald takes a similar approach. It’s not that I think the reflections are “wrong” or even necessarily out of place, it just feels like they don’t add that much to the conversation. They’re a writer’s ponderings on the world that don’t propose solutions or explore alternatives. I’m glad to know more about White’s life, but I don’t think I’m likely to check out any of his writing.

I much prefer the parts about the actual hawk training to the reflections on what it means to be British. Though I do appreciate the times that Macdonald acknowledges the privileged history of falconry and some of the problems that stem from that. I also really enjoyed her reflections on her dad’s childhood during World War II, how it led to his fascination with planes, and how that might have encouraged her interest in birds of prey.

H is for Hawk is a book I’m glad I read, but won’t likely read again. It doesn’t have more to offer than what is in the forefront on a first read. I liked learning about some of the basics of falconry and seeing the challenges up-close. I liked the honest exploration of her personal state after her father’s death, and that it didn’t aim to prescribe a “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. In those areas, the book shared her journey, which was intriguing to an outsider. There’s a lot of things I really did like about the book. I’m not sure why I found it a bit of a slog to read through, but sometimes that’s just how things go.

What’s a book you’re glad you read, but probably won’t read again? What’s a book you could read a million times? Are there any books you couldn’t bring yourself to finish? Share in the comments!

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