H is for Hawk – written by Helen Macdonald as a memoir. I know, I’m about 4 years behind with this one! I think that when it came out in 2014/2015, I was probably a bit put off by the description, to be quite honest and also the fact that everyone was reading it. It couldn’t be that good, could it? I dismissed it not just because of the cover, but also the story. Birds? Hunting? Pah. No thanks, not for me.
I picked this up because I was looking for a book which is near where I live, and this is set in East Anglia. I thought I’d read the first few pages, just to see, and then take it from there. Actually, what happened was that I devoured it faster than any book I’ve read in a long time (barring those read on journeys where you can’t do anything but read)
The basic premise is that a woman called Helen (H is for….Helen?) Macdonald, a college professor in Cambridgeshire, gets a goshawk to train. She does it because she is grieving, at least in part. Her Dad dies suddenly and she feels un-anchored. She starts thinking about her childhood and her passion for falconry, and this is woven into a tapestry which incorporates old hawking manuals, TH White’s biography and training Mabel. Mabel, the hawk.
It sounds like it would be cumbersome and unwieldy, but I really enjoyed the rhythm and the way Macdonald brought it all together, deftly managing the various strands into one coherent and passionate novel/memoir.
I also didn’t expect for it to be funny – and it is. Training Mabel is tense and I learned far more than I ever thought I would know about training falcons (jesses and hoods, twitches and beaters) and also found it fascinating. The explanation is never patronising or too technical and it’s always put into practice on Mabel so we, the readers, can see where Helen was taking us. The comedy is in the little things – the playtime between trainer and wild bird, the ludicrousness of doing so at a time where everything is up in the air.
If you haven’t read it yet (and you might be one of the last on the planet) I would highly recommend it.