Books

H is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald's memoir was published in 2014.

Helen Macdonald

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 £800 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. 

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. 

As John Vaillant's The Tiger depicted the dangerous collision of people and nature, H is for Hawk evokes our deepest longings for something wild. With stunning language that that resonates long after the book's conclusion, H is for Hawk is destined to be a classic of nature writing. (From Hamish Hamilton)

From the book

Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I've come to love very much indeed. It's where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It's a land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases. There are ghosts here: houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry. There are spaces built for air-delivered nukes inside grassy tumuli behind twelve-foot fences, tattoo par­lours and US Air Force golf courses. In spring it's a riot of noise: constant plane traffic, gas-guns over pea fields, wood-larks and jet engines. It's called the Brecklands — the broken lands — and it's where I ended up that morning, seven years ago, in early spring, on a trip I hadn't planned at all. At five in the morning I'd been staring at a square of streetlight on the ceiling, listening to a couple of late party-leavers chatting on the pavement outside. I felt odd: overtired, overwrought, unpleasantly like my brain had been removed and my skull stuffed with something like microwaved aluminium foil, dinted, charred and shorting with sparks. Nnngh. Must get out, I thought, throwing back the covers. Out! I pulled on jeans, boots and a jumper, scalded my mouth with burned coffee, and it was only when my frozen, ancient Volkswagen and I were halfway down the A14 that I worked out where I was going, and why. Out there, beyond the foggy windscreen and white lines, was the forest. The broken forest. That's where I was headed. To see goshawks.


From H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald ©2015. Published by Hamish Hamilton.

Author interviews

Eleanor speaks with England's Helen Macdonald about her best-selling memoir, "H is for Hawk". In this interview from 2015, Macdonald discusses how she dealt with her father's sudden death by training a goshawk — the fiercest, wildest bird of prey. 51:31