Wednesday, January 25, 2017

REVIEW | H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Publication Year: 2014
Genre: Non-fiction, Natural History and Memoir
Series: NA
Awards: None
Format: Audio (from Audible)
Narrator: Helen Macdonald

WHY?: For a myriad of reasons.  I love natural history, I have experienced loss and grief, The Once and Future King is one of my favorite books and finally the book had so many great recommendations.

SYNOPSIS: Helen Macdonald's life becomes rudderless after her father suddenly dies.  In part to deal with her grief, she throws herself into training one of the most ornery of falconry birds, the Goshawk.  The process also drives her into a contemplation of T. H. White's book The Goshawk which she had been disdainful of as a child.  Reading it at this time in her life leads her to a new understanding of White which ultimately helps her to address her grief and the new world she lives in without her father.


This book really spoke to me on a number of different levels but I have to admit it may not do so for everyone. It's an odd book really. Part memoir, part nature essay, part biography of T.H. White.  The connections between these topics aren't obvious but they are woven together in Macdonald's grief stricken brain and that is what ultimately makes them work as a whole. The T.H. White portions are the pieces that seem the most separate but for Macdonald, his book The Goshawk and his life gained new meaning in her time of grief.  

Macdonald is a falconer and has been obsessed with birds, particularly raptors since she was a child.  The Goshawk, a big vicious brute of a predator, is acknowledged as one of the hardest falconry birds to train and "domesticate".  While she's never really had much of an affinity with Goshawk's before, when Macdonald's father dies, suddenly and unexpectedly, she feels an urge to throw herself into the challenge of training this wildest of raptors.  And throw herself she does, almost losing herself in the hours upon hours of solitary time working with and developing a relationship with her new Goshawk.  It's fascinating and beautiful and it is where her gorgeous prose shines the brightest in my opinion, especially when describing the hawk and its natural behaviors, its wildness.  
“I stalked around the edge of the wood, crouching low, holding my breath. My attention was microscopically fierce. I'd become a thing of eyes and will alone. Mabel held her wings out from her sides, her head snaking, reptilian, eyes glowing. It felt like I was holding the bastard offspring of a flaming torch and an assault rifle.” 
“A short scuffle, and then out into the gloom, her grey crest raised and her barred chest feathers puffed up into a meringue of aggression and fear, came a huge old female goshawk. Old because her feet were gnarled and dusty, her eyes a deep, fiery orange, and she was beautiful. Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thunder-cloud. She completely filled the room. She had a massive back of sun-bleached grey feathers, was as muscled as a pit bull, and intimidating as hell, even to staff who spent their days tending eagles.” 
She completely captures the essence of these magnificent birds.  I work with a pair of biologists whose expertise is birds, particularly raptors and I continually wanted to shove this book at them even though I'm not sure the introspective grief management and T.H. White portions of the book would work for them.  Honestly though, even if they didn't, the bits about natural history would be worth it.
“Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world. In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.” 

It is a book that dwells on the past while ultimately deciding that it is best to move and look forward - a rather unconventional view for a historian;)(Macdonald's vocation).  Her father's death, training the Goshawk, T.H. White's troubled life all point her towards a new understanding of the world and it's really beautiful.   We venerate the past  - in world history and in our own personal lives and it does a disservice to our world and to ourselves.  It's important to look at and study history but focus on how it moved us forward.
“Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.”
I can't give the book 5 stars because I do think the portions of the book focused on T.H. White, while interesting, didn't quite flow but it is a really highly recommended 4 stars especially if Natural History is your jam. 
  The author narrates the book which is sometimes cause for alarm but in this case it works great.  Her words and the way she reads them are powerful and she also brings out the subtle humor with which she writes and which may not have been as apparent when reading the text.  

FINAL VERDICT:  A beautifully written and engaging memoir that I think will appeal to natural historians, book geeks and folks who have experienced loss.  4 out of 5 Stars

OTHER OPINIONS ARE AVAILABLE: Cornell Lab of Ornithology | A Little Blog of Books

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