H is for Hawk, Hardback Book
4.5 out of 5 (10 ratings)


Winner of the 2014 Samuel Johnson PrizeWinner of the 2014 Costa Book of the Year AwardShortlisted for the 2014 Duff Cooper PrizeShortlisted for the 2014 Thwaites Wainwright Prize `In real life, goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats.

Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier, and much, much harder to see.

Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they're the birdwatchers' dark grail.'As a child Helen Macdonald was determined to become a falconer.

She learned the arcane terminology and read all the classic books, including T.

H. White's tortured masterpiece, The Goshawk, which describes White's struggle to train a hawk as a spiritual contest. When her father dies and she is knocked sideways by grief, she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk.

She buys Mabel for GBP800 on a Scottish quayside and takes her home to Cambridge.

Then she fills the freezer with hawk food and unplugs the phone, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this wildest of animals. `To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so gain the ability to predict what it will do next.

Eventually you don't see the hawk's body language at all.

You seem to feel what it feels. The hawk's apprehension becomes your own. As the days passed and I put myself in the hawk's wild mind to tame her, my humanity was burning away.'Destined to be a classic of nature writing, H is for Hawk is a record of a spiritual journey - an unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald's struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk's taming and her own untaming.

At the same time, it's a kaleidoscopic biography of the brilliant and troubled novelist T.

H. White, best known for The Once and Future King. It's a book about memory, nature and nation, and how it might be possible to try to reconcile death with life and love.


  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Children's Publishers UK
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Wildlife: birds & birdwatching
  • ISBN: 9780224097000

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Showing 1 - 5 of 10 reviews.

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Review by

Delighted to hear that Helen Macdonald's wonderful memoir has scooped the Samuel Johnson prize. There was a buzz about this book almost as soon as it was published, chuffed that I bought it early and I found it a stunningly honest, painful account of grief assuaged though a telling direct relation with nature and for me its simply the best birdy book I have read. In my appreciation stakes it stands beside: The Peregrine by J.A.Baker; a minor ornithologist who's off-kilter psychology has parallels with Helen Macdonald's biographical and secondary subject T.H.White. But most of all I love her nature writing, its sharp and emotional and every bit as good as Nan Shepherd or Robert MacFarlane - and in my book you can't really do better than that. I heard her being interviewed on the radio where she described her book as "A love story to nature". It is, and Helen Macdonald is a gem of a writer..

Review by

While initially I despaired of getting through what seemed to be a pretentious vocabulary, I'm glad I pushed on. Macdonald taught me the value of a writer taking their time and choosing words carefully. She was building a hard experience, one that takes patience and time and reading the book became a metaphor of the story. Sharing her experience of training a Goshawk, she also shares her memories and reflections on the death of her father and on her research into the life of T.H. White, also a trainer of a Goshawk. Her insights into the life and mind of this writer is surprising and interesting serving as a bridge between her own contemplation of familial love and the ties that bind us to wild things.

Review by

An interesting discussion about the reaction of a Cambridge academic to her fathers death, & her subsequent retreat into her childhood love of falconry & to a lesser extent, the English countryside. It is also a treatise into depression & how a self made middle class lecturer found it difficult to accept help & insight into a disease process that essentially made her unwell & totally inaccessible to those around her apart from her hawk. It's needs were pretty much all she could cope with given the severity of her grief reaction. At times rambling, & certainly needed a lot more tightening up with regards to the direction of its narrative, I found it at times, difficult to access, & difficult to sympathise with. Interesting for those who have an interest in the countryside, falconry & mental health, but be prepared, large tracts of it are very hard work.

Review by

Over the years I have caught glimpses of various hunting birds - the occasional osprey and several eagles, including golden ones, up in the Scottish Highlands, and, just a few months ago near Coulsdon I came across a kestrel that had just brought down a wood pigeon. Most incongruously, though, was a sighting just a couple of hundred metres from the Houses of Parliament. Having parked in the courtyard of 'GOGGS', the Treasury building that overlooks Parliament Square on a very foggy morning I became aware of footsteps approaching, and out of the mist loomed a stern-faced man with his right arm raised. Resting on his fist was a beady eyed falcon viewing everything within its compass (me most definitely included) with utter disdain. This was the building's avian management contractor paying his regular visit to scare away the grubby hordes of pigeons that bedevilled the premises. I am fairly certain, though, that I have never seen a goshawk. Judging by Helen Macdonald's marvellous book even the most fleeting glimpse of a goshawk would be burned into ones memory for ever.This book might more accurately have been called 'G is for Goshawk' for although Macdonald offers a potted history of the broad ambit of falconry, it is with goshawks that she is principally concerned. Wracked with grief at the sudden death of her father she seeks therapy through buying a young goshawk, whom she names Mabel, and undertaking to train it. All hawks, it seems, are troublesome creatures, and training them is a battle of wills that stretches bird and falconer to their very limits. Macdonald's goshawk is certainly no exception and she describes her struggle to bend Mabel to her will.The descriptions of the bird's appearance, and its movements (whether in outbursts of furious temper or, later, its graceful flights launched from Macdonald's fist, are masterful, almost hypnotic. Once fully trained, the partnership between hawk and hawker is as close as that between shepherd and sheepdog, though executed with infinitely more grace.The book is, however, far more than a simple account of Macdonald's experiences training the goshawk to do her bidding. She gives us a detailed history of the falconer's art, a deep insight into the natural history of the hawk family, and a dazzling biography of T H White, now best known for his works 'The Sword in the Stone' and 'The Once and Future King' which did so much to crystallise the public's understanding of, and fascination with, the Arthurian legend. Macdonald's interest in White is, however, prompted by another of his books, the less well known account of his own attempts to train a goshawk. This chronicle, simple called 'The Goshawk' captured MacDonald's imagination as a girl, and ultimately inspired her to acquire and train her own bird. White's experience with his own goshawk, like so much else within his tortured life, was not a happy one, and the book is, by all accounts, a difficult and tortuous read. That is far from being the case with Macdonald's wonderful work which also serves to show that even the deepest grief can, gradually, eventually, be overcome.

Review by

Turns out that the artwork by Christopher Wormell is just absolutely right for this book. From glimpsed headlines, I knew there were hawks within its pages. And grieving. Beyond that, I wanted to make sure I didn’t know what to expect. I avoided the reviews, the commentaries as it won prizes. Oh and this book is unexpectedly lovely, unexpectedly painful and unexpectedly about so much more than hawks and grieving. I lingered over this book not because the writing is difficult (it’s clear, precise), but because it’s beautiful.

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