H IS FOR HAWK BOOK REVIEW
“H is for Hawk”
by Helen MacDonald
Linking Personal Narratives: A Story of a Hawk and it’s Falconer
“H is for Hawk” by Helen MacDonald is quite possibly one of the most beautifully written memoirs I have ever read. The devotion and love that MacDonald feels for her goshawk is so apparent through this text that it is almost palpable. The reader feels the same frustrations every time Mabel the hawk bates off MacDonald’s glove clad fist, the same fear and anxious anticipation MacDonald feels when Mabel flies free the first time, the same giddy excitement when MacDonald holds a cardboard paper towel tube up to her hawk to play peekaboo. This is truly the strength of this book, the honesty and emotion of the story of a falconer and her beloved hawk.
There are several threads that follow the reader and the author throughout the text, the first being the nearly parallel story of White and his goshawk. These snippets of historical biography of a man who also turned to falconry as a means of expression lent depth and breadth to what could be considered a one dimensional story without it. MacDonald ties her story to White’s in a subtle and understated way through moments of reflection. As she struggles to come to terms with the death of her father, White is attempting to come to terms with living a life that he had not wanted, one in which he is forced to hide certain aspects of himself. The reader is able to easily identify the bond that MacDonald felt to White through her research because as a reader of “H is for Hawk” we too feel it.
The second thread, which far less frequent, however possibly more important, is that of her relationship with her father. It comes in different forms, whether it is the man who took her hawking for the first time as a child, in her experiences with him as an adult, or in her relationship with him after his death. The moments of emotional reflection about MacDonald’s father are few and far between, for this is mostly a story about her relationship with Mabel, but I think that this adds a weakness to the story as a whole. These are the moments of rawness and connection we feel with the author and they don’t happen terribly often. As the reader I wanted more of this, I wanted this story to be about how becoming the mother to a goshawk helped her get through her father’s death, how it made her look at relationships differently, how it helped her connect with her father in his absence. The absence of these reflections made me realize that in my own work I need to not be so afraid to go there and make connections. I need to add moments of reflection about my father to tie everything together in a more succinct and deliberate way.
Regardless of the lack of reflection about her father’s death, MacDonald has a beautiful piece of literature. It’s striking in its simplicity. There is a quote early on in the text that reads “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”(5) This is precisely how I feel about this book, it is a gift of grace. We don’t often come across books that touch us to our core, that evoke emotion in the most unexpected of places and relationships, but this one does.