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May 17

Book Review: H is for Hawk

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

It seems like the memoirs that really appeal to me, especially recently, are ones like this: brilliant, well-read women who do interesting things. Helen Macdonald is a falconer, but she’s also an academic with a taste for literature.
When Macdonald’s father dies, she sees the book Goshawk by T.H.White on her shelf and decides to train her own goshawk. So begins the “manning” of Mabel, her young raptor. Macdonald gives us a view into the long history of falconry, and her lifelong obsession with it, and makes hypotheses about what drew T.H.White to the same sport.

This memoir touches on many subjects. Macdonald talks about her father, his work, and her relationship with him. It’s a love-letter to the English countryside too, and reveals a deep familiarity with landscapes I’ve read about but never seen. I’ve never hunted, but I believe that no one quite gets as in-touch with wildlife as someone who has to learn how an animal thinks in order to catch or kill it.

T.H.White’s story was tragic but not uncommon for anyone unfortunate enough to have been born gay when he was, to parents so unsuited to parenting. I’m not familiar with his work (I tried to read The Once and Future King, but had cut my teeth on Marion Zimmer Bradley and couldn’t make the switch) but I could sympathize with his pain.

I learned enough about falconry from this book to know that I probably would never have the patience for it, and I got a good enough feel for the English countryside that it made me really want to visit, and I learned enough about T.H.White to make me curious about some of his work. This book is only nominally a memoir about grief, and a memoir about falconry. It’s also a deep essay on what it means to be wild, what it means to be true to your own nature, and how fleeting and fragile it can be to pretend a creature is something other than itself.

I got the audiobook, which was well-read by the author.

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