Book Review: H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

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This has been on my ‘TBR’ (To Be Read) pile for a good while, so fitted very well with the 2016 Reading Challenge. There was also a pleasing symmetry having read A Kestrel For a Knave earlier this year. Despite H is for Hawk having received wide acclaim, and a Costa Book of the Year prize, when I started reading it, I realised how little I knew about it.

Surprise the first – it isn’t a novel. It is a book unlike any other I’ve read. A memoir, with a heavy dose of analysis of another book. That it took about a month to read speaks volumes. It swings from delight (the writing) to annoyance (the fixation on the other book, Gilbert White’s Gos). Macdonald’s book is a response to her grief at her father’s death – a grief that turned her to an obsession about training a goshawk. Macdonald explains her connection to White’s book, which she first read as a young girl, and the importance to her in somehow understanding White, and her own grief.

Grief does strange things to people; I have my own experience of my father’s untimely death when I was 28 (he was 53), and in this respect H is for Hawk is an anatomy of the strangeness of the journey of grief, and the places that it flings you. In reading Macdonald’s memoir, it reminded me of long forgotten peculiarities of my own grief. Perhaps this is partly why it took so long to read. I also did not need the essaying around White’s book, although I respect and appreciate why Macdonald did.

Macdonald’s writing at times leaves you breathless. It is wonderful, and the hope for more astounding description or reflection drove me further into Macdonald’s world. The acute observation as a ‘watcher’ (she describes this ability learnt at her father’s feet) is reflected in her prose, particularly around Mabel, the hawk. Her reflections are generous, and thorough. Macdonald therefore, for me, has the elements of a great writer, and yet…

It has taken me time to sit down to review this book. A reluctance that accompanied me as I read the book. I am certain that says as much about me as her book. H is for Hawk is chilling, moving, irritating, and beguiling in one package. Would I recommend it? I’m not sure, but I think that is to do with the unexpected step into my own grief.

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