H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Macdonald mourns the loss of her father and with the tools of her art looks hard into herself and at the birds of prey she has loved since she was a child. At the intersection of human needs, desires and passions, and the instincts of raptors, is the blood sport of falconry.  In the savage life of the hawk the author finds a field for coping with her own loss.

The blurbs from reviewers on the back of the book show confusion over the genre of this book. Is it memoir, a nature book, what?

It is a book-length personal essay, the most flexible and important genre we know. Essays, like poems, hold together unrelated ideas, activities, forms of life, etc., and in so doing sometimes flame with insight and understanding. Brave, sharp, unfiltered, literate, Macdonald’s book explores the intersection of human consciousness together with attention to a formidable bird, an accomplished killer. As its keeper and accomplice, the author is a killer too, surviving, burying the past, reinventing herself.

Gifted essayists tell us about our lives, especially about the parts we might like to keep hidden or secret. It would be almost unthinkable for a long personal essay, twisting and turning here and there, following hints, hunches and logic, not to stumble into spiritual regions. Macdonald searches widely, hunting down ghosts of an odd novelist and of her own father as she tries to understand the habits of wild birds and interact with some of them.


“Now that Dad was gone I was starting to see how mortality was bound up in things like that cold, arc-lit sky. How the world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might see them. Once, twice, Perhaps never again.”

“Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb the hurts of life.”

She writes of the strange and tragic life of novelist Terrance Hanbury White who wrote a book titled The Goshawk:

“…he was a man whose life disturbed me. But a man, too, who loved nature, who found it surprising, bewitching and endlessly novel…taking childish delight in creatures other than man…He knew that the world was full of simple miracles…”


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