4 June 2015

I have only ever been dimly aware of this activity, which I associated with medieval hunting practised by kings and nobles. I have certainly never been sufficiently interested in it to find out any more. In a perfect example of how reading a book can transport you to different worlds, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Penguin Random House, 2014) had me fascinated by the process of finding and training a bird of prey, in this case, a goshawk.

A book capable of transporting the reader is usually one that is exceptionally well written. That is true of this book. There are sublime descriptions of the Cambridgeshire countryside where Macdonald trained her hawk. A gully is “all covered with brambles and briars and robin’s pincushions set on briar stems like exotic fruit, their vegetable hairs brushed green and rose and carmine”. And the way she sets a scene makes the reader feel that she can see it.
“Time passes. It’s getting on for a thick, gloamy evening. Smoke is
everywhere on the horizon. A yellow crescent moon tilts, out of focus,
up there is something that looks like a plate of agar. Swimmy dusk.
Bats flit. Trees gather darkness to themselves.”

The reader is also hooked by Macdonald’s passion for falconry and for this particular bird, Mabel, who is “a high-tension wire-strung hawk of murderous anticipation”. However, this would not have been sufficient to keep me reading. It is the way Macdonald weaves in the thoughts and anecdotes of other (all male and long-gone) falconers that kept me turning the pages. Macdonald uses the life and writings of T.H. White (the complex school teacher, writer, pilot, fisherman and hunter of whom I was vaguely aware as the author of The Once and Future King) to underpin her own story. All the writers are acknowledged in the source notes at the end of the book and, in the postscript, we learn that Macdonald read White’s papers and journals in the archive (the Harry Ransom Center in Texas) where they are kept.

More compelling than all this is Macdonald’s account of the sudden death of her beloved father and how the process of training Mabel ran parallel to the grief and slow recovery from that loss. We also get glimpses of her childhood when her obsession with the natural world began.

The bloodiness of falconry (there are vivid descriptions of killing rabbits and pheasants caught by the hawk) and the brutality of the accoutrements (leather hoods and straps) do not make for comfortable reading. But the beauty of the writing and the skillfully interwoven stories make this an absorbing book. It won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction and the Costa Biography Award in 2014.

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