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  • Writer's pictureMaggie Davies

H is for Hawk

For Christmas I bought my husband a book about a woman who buys a bird and attempts to train it. Not my kind of thing. I'm drawn to books like Cecily, Gone Girl, The Narrow Road to the North. Even Bryony Gordon's The Wrong Knickers. History, fiction, memoire. But he loved H is For Hawk so much that I had to give it a try.

Because this bird, reader, was no African grey in an elaborate cage. No bored budgie pecking at a brass bell. It was a creature like "a griffin from the pages of an illuminated bestiary".

When Helen Macdonald's beloved countryside-loving father dies, and she finds herself floored by grief, she buys a goshawk for £800 and attempts to train it in the way medieval lords and ladies did. As well as creating a suspense story - can she possibly succeed? - it turns into a spiritual journey about love and loss. And as a bonus it is also a tutorial on how to write beautifully.

Here is Mabel, looking out of her box on a Scottish quayside for the first time: "Her beak is open, her hackles raised, her wild eyes were the colour of sun on white paper, and they stared because the whole world had fallen into them at once."

Macdonald sees her new acquisition as reptilian, "the lucency of her pale, round eyes...the waxy, yellow skin about her Bakelite-black beak...half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and brass."

Walking in the woods, she sees "a little sprig of mahonia growing out of the turf, its oxblood leaves like buffed pigskin". Some deer in the forest "ankle their way out of the brush to graze".

Oh, to be able to write that well. To reach back for almost-forgotten, but perfectly right descriptive words like Bakelite. Do put this wonderful and moving book on your TBR pile. It may make you cry, but you won't forget the magnificent Mabel in a hurry.

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