Book Review: “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

A memoir can help us feel less alone, connecting us with another who has faced a difficult life experience similar to our own. At the same time it can also reveal how we each uniquely meet our challenges. Following the sudden death of her father, Helen Macdonald generously shares the path she walked in her memoir, H is for Hawk.

Macdonald is a historian and a falconer. That is to say, she flies hawks. Her childhood was spent obsessed with hawks and falconry, and in the months following the death of her father, she has recurring dreams of hawks.

Enter Mabel. A goshawk that Macdonald tames, trains and eventually flies. Macdonald’s connection with Mabel soothes her broken heart. And in spending large amounts of time carefully tuning into her new friend, Macdonald slips into the wild world of her raptor, leaving her own painful world behind.

Nature is at the forefront of this memoir. Both the gruesome and the beautiful. I was shocked by the descriptions of a goshawk hunting prey, and Macdonald’s participation in the hunt. In contrast, through her love for nature, we learn with intricacy the colours, shapes, sounds, movements, smells and textures of the surrounding English landscape.

At times the book was hard work. Macdonald is an academic and her sentences are thick with barely-pronounceable verbs and descriptors. Like brumous, coruscating, fluorescing, immolate and pugilist. It was helpful to have a dictionary within arm’s reach. It is worth persevering though, as the reward is an expanded vocabulary and the pleasure of reading many exquisite sentences.

The journey through grief is inevitable for all of us, and we are invited to walk alongside Macdonald as she finds her way through.  Her courage to be honest and vulnerable is impressive. Macdonald illustrates the rawness of grief and the physicality of emotional pain. Upon hearing the news that her father has died she writes, “My legs broke, buckled, and I was sitting on the carpet, phone pressed against my right ear”.

And later, when visiting her mother at her parents house, “. . . it became too much . . . I ran into my old room, sat on the little bed and hugged my knees, pain worming around inside my chest like a thing with a million tiny teeth and claws.”

As her memoir reaches its end the reader comes to know, with relief, that Macdonald’s heart is healing. She has found a note written on card, the edges cut by her father, and holds it. She writes, “And for the first time I understood the shape of my grief. I could feel exactly how big it was. It was the strangest feeling, like holding something the size of a mountain in your arms”. And in that moment this changed falconer recognised a different feeling in her heart, that her grief had been transformed into love.


H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014) was published by Random House. It was awarded the Costa Book of the Year, and was winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize. The Richmond Tweed Library holds several copies.