H IS FOR HAWK by Helen MacDonald
Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non Fiction 2014
H IS FOR HAWK is the story of how a woman tamed and trained a wild hawk. The hawk was a goshawk, Britain’s wildest, most lethal bird of prey. The woman was me.
Five months before the hawk arrived my father had died, suddenly, unexpectedly, on a London street. My world blew away. I started dreaming of hawks: goshawks, the most bloodthirsty and highly-strung of British birds of prey. I’d trained hawks before, but never a goshawk. I’d never wanted to. I’d seen nothing of myself reflected in their solitudinous, murderous eyes. Not for me, I’d thought, many times. Nothing like me. But the world had changed, and so had I. The hawk was inevitable. I wrote to a hawk breeder in Ireland and bought a 10-week old female goshawk. I didn’t want to be desperate and wild. I didn’t want to be angry. But I was. Unconsciously I wanted the hawk to be those things for me. Hawks don’t grieve. Hawks don’t hurt. Hawks hunt. Hawks kill. So it was that one damp early morning on a Scottish quayside a man opened a cardboard box in front of me and brought out a flapping, terrifying bird with curved black talons and lambent silver eyes. I called her Mabel, and brought her back to Cambridge to start our new life.
H IS FOR HAWK is partly a diary of training a large and powerful bird of prey, and partly the record of a spiritual journey – an unflinchingly honest account of my own struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk’s taming, and my own untaming. It is the story of a journey into wildness with a creature that almost brought disaster, but was also my salvation. The book is also a meditation on the place that hawks have had in the human imagination for millennia, the place of nature in the modern world, and the strange story of another falconer, goshawk-keeper and writer, the novelist T.H. White, best known for his series of Arthurian books The Once and Future King. White wrote an extraordinary account of his goshawk experiences in the 1930s, and H IS FOR HAWK carries out a conversation with this near-mad book. Throughout, H IS FOR HAWK reflects on a wealth of themes – on home and flying from it, on killing things and English fascism, on what can be tamed and what cannot. It interweaves the excitement and fascination of my days with the hawk with myriad connected stories: memories of my father, my own childhood, the meanings of nature and nation, the past of place and the place of the past in the English landscape, the lure of violence, extinction and migration, the morality of keeping animals, and ultimately, how it might be possible to try and reconcile death with life and love. At the centre of it all is always the hawk: unpredictable, beautiful, lethal and strange, as magnetic and extraordinary a beast for the reader as she is for the falconer.
Lyrical, thought-provoking, rich with incident and reflection, in turns heartbreaking and hilarious, H IS FOR HAWK is the first work of literary non-fiction by the acclaimed poet, writer, historian and illustrator Helen Macdonald.
‘It just sings. I couldn’t stop reading.’
‘This beautiful book is at once heartfelt and clever in the way it mixes elegy with celebration: elegy for a father lost, celebration of a hawk found – and in the finding also a celebration of countryside, forbears of one kind and another, life-in-death. At a time of very distinguished writing about the relationship between human kind and the environment, it is immediately pre-eminent.’
Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate
‘This is a book made from the heart that goes to the heart… It combines old and new nature and human nature with great originality. No one who has looked up to see a bird of prey cross the sky could read it and not have their life shifted.’ Tim Dee
‘H is for Hawk is a dazzling piece of work: deeply affecting, utterly fascinating and blazing with love and intelligence …. A deeply human work shot through, like cloth of gold with intelligence and compassion – an exemplar of the mysterious alchemy by which suffering can be transmuted into beauty. I will be surprised if a better book than H is for Hawk is published this year.’ Melissa Harrison, Financial Times
‘Nature-writing, but not as you know it. Astounding.’ The Bookseller, August Non-Fiction Book of the Month
‘One of the most eloquent accounts of bereavement you could hope to read. A grief memoir with wings.’ Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller
‘She [Macdonald] extends the boundaries of nature writing. As a naturalist she has somehow acquired her bird’s laser-like visual acuity. As a writer she combines a lexicographer’s pleasure in words as carefully curated objects with an inventive passion for new words or for ways of releasing fresh effects from the old stock … The English-speaking world has an old passion for books about creatures and captivating companions … Helen Macdonald looks set to revive the genre.’ Mark Cocker, Guardian
‘Mabel and Ms Macdonald are the fast-beating heart of the passionate, discursive essay … Her [Macdonald] descriptions of hunting with Mabel, scouring the woods and fields for game, cause a reader’s pulse to race … This memoir is lit with flashes of grace, a grace that sweeps down to the reader to hold her wrist tight with beautiful, terrible claws. The discovery of the season.’ Erica Wagner, Economist
‘[H is for Hawk] has more of the chill of a horror story, or a psychological thriller … fascinating.’ Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday
‘What she [Helen] has achieved is a very rare thing in literature – a completely realistic account of a human relationship with animal consciousness. Poetic equivalents that come to mind are Gerard Manley Hopkins’s The Windhover and Ted Hughes’s Hawk Roosting. But they are masterpieces of the imagination, whereas Macdonald is imaginative and factual at the same time. Her training of Mabel has the suspense and tension of the here and now. You are gripped by the slightest movement, by the turn of every feather.
It is a soaring performance and Mabel is the star.’ John Carey, The Sunday Times
‘H is for Hawk is the apotheosis of the current nature renaissance … Macdonald’s prose is poetic, forensic, yet often capable of quickening the pulse.’ Benjamin Myers, New Scientist
‘I’m convinced it’s going to be an absolute classic of nature writing.’ Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Literature Festival
‘In a year of very good books I reckon you’ve got the number one here.’ Jeff Barrett, founder of Caught by the River
H is for Hawk is a work of great spirit and wonder, illuminated equally by terror and desire. Each beautiful sentence is capable of taking a reader¹s breath. The book is built of feather and bone, intelligence and blood, and a vulnerability so profound as to conjure that vulnerability¹s shadow, which is the great power of honesty. It is not just a definitive work on falconry; it is a definitive work on humanity, and all that can and cannot be possessed. ¬Rick Bass
A lovely touching book about a young woman grieving over the death of her father becoming rejuvenated by training one of the roughest, most difficult creatures in the heavens, the goshawk. –Jim Harrison