H is for Hawk is about a hawk. A goshawk, specifically. But it’s not just about that. It’s also about T. H. White, and falconry, and the grieving process.
After the death of her father, Helen MacDonald returns to her childhood hobby of falconry. She withdraws from society and begins training a goshawk – a famously grumpy and difficult-to-train bird. Through this training, and her growing relationship with the hawk (Mabel), MacDonald deals with her grief and explores ideas about nature and identity.
The book won a bunch of awards, and they all seem to be deserved. H is for Hawk starts from a very simple premise and then expands from there to discuss a wide range of topics in depth. There’s a lot in the book about falconry, and a lot more about T. H. White, who wrote his own book about taming a goshawk. In a sense, there are two narratives here – Helen MacDonald’s as she uses falconry to explore her own loss, and T. H. White’s own struggles with falconry and misery.
What I want from non-fiction is something that lets me understand the author’s passion for the subject, showing meaning and making connections that I didn’t know were there. I’m vaguely familiar with falconry as a concept, and I’ve read White’s The Sword in the Stone, but there is always something fascinating in reading a true enthusiast’s thoughts on a given topic. Helen Macdonald is very well informed, and clearly very attached to her chosen topic; that shines through.
The greatest strength of the book is the prose. It’s frequently lyrical, which is lovely, albeit surprising in non-fiction. Macdonald brings the wildness of the hawk to life, giving you the same sense of beauty and fearful wonder that she feels when first seeing her bird. The book isn’t dry at all, and is often quite affecting.
I really liked this. It’s not a happy book, but it’s definitely an interesting and thoughtful one. I’d absolutely recommend it.