As a commuter in London, I automatically assume that strangers who are trying to talk to me or distract me are probably attempting to pickpocket me. However, for the first time ever on my way home from work recently, I was briefly stopped by a stranger at a train station who commented on the book I was reading. He noticed I was holding a copy of ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald and just said “Great book! Really great book!” At the time, I was just over half way through it and had already arrived at this conclusion. I quickly said “Yes, I’m really enjoying it!” before we went our separate ways.
There are few books which merit comments from passing strangers in cities like London where commuters are notoriously unfriendly but ‘H is for Hawk’ is that kind of book. The distinctive cover design probably helps but its content is even more memorable. Following the sudden death of her father in 2007, Cambridge academic Helen Macdonald bought a goshawk, named her Mabel and poured all of her energy into training her. Although Macdonald was already an experienced falconer having had her childhood interest in birds encouraged by her father, training a goshawk whilst dealing with grief is a completely different undertaking.
Macdonald deftly weaves together her account of her experiences of training Mabel and her depression with a more traditional biography of T. H. White. Best known as the author of ‘The Once and Future King’ series of Arthurian novels beginning with ‘The Sword in the Stone’, White also wrote about his own failed experiences of training a hawk in a lesser-known work entitled ‘The Goshawk’ published in 1951. Macdonald’s extensive research from White’s archived papers at the University of Texas uncovers a complex and lonely character. She reflects thoughtfully on the role goshawks have played in his life as well as dealing with her own loss.
‘H is for Hawk’ is more contemporary than I had expected. As well as a number of descriptive passages evoking the landscape of the Cambridgeshire fens, there are also some more surreal glimpses into life with a bird of prey such as how Mabel would sit with Macdonald at home watching television. Although Macdonald connects the different strands well, it is always the hawk who remains at the heart of the book and in the book’s postscript, she reveals that Mabel sadly died after contracting an airborne fungal infection.
Even though the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction is often awarded to a more traditional historical biography, ‘H is for Hawk’ was the first memoir to win this year’s prize and deservedly so. The book’s appeal was summarised by the chair of the judging panel, Claire Tomalin, who said “None of us on the panel were either naturalists or wildlife enthusiasts but this book just took hold of us.” Refreshingly original, deeply personal and brilliantly written, ‘H is for Hawk’ is my non-fiction book of the year.