Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

“H Is for Hawk,” by Helen Macdonald
“H Is for Hawk,” by Helen Macdonald



David Vann, Atlantic Monthly, 266 pages

“Aquarium” may be elegantly written and fiercely imagined, but it is also gorgeous. I found myself turning pages slowly, then running my hand across each smooth page. The photographs throughout the text, along with the turquoise capital letters that begin each chapter and mark the author’s name and book title on every creamy, thick page, reminded me that no electronic reader could provide this tactile and visual experience.

“Aquarium” is suspenseful and difficult to describe without revealing details that will undermine revelations that elevate this book beyond the tale of a sensitive girl and her frustrated, angry mother struggling to make ends meet. “Welcome to the adult world, coming soon,” says Sheri, 12-year-old narrator Caitlin’s mother. “I work so I can work more. I try not to want anything so maybe I’ll get something. I starve so I can be less and more. I try to be free so I can be alone.”

Caitlin longs for love and a sense of connection in a cruel world. Like the ugly fish that opens the novel, the world is an ugly place; but by book’s end, a beautiful one. The aquarium makes Caitlin’s life bearable, and she derives strength from imagining a universe where healing powers of forgiveness and empathy prevail. At times, this is a painful novel, but its beauty propels it toward redemption.

Los Angeles Times


H Is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald, Grove, 300 pages

“H Is for Hawk” is one of a kind, unless there are other grief memoirs/falconry tales/literary analyses. Helen Macdonald is a poet, her language rich and taut. Macdonald, a University of Cambridge scholar, became undone by her father’s sudden death. Grieving and drifting, her university job drawing to a close and her path uncertain, she found herself seized by a powerful notion: She wanted to tame a goshawk. A falconer, one who trains and hunts with birds of prey, she descends into a wild, nearly mad connection with her hawk. Her words keep powerful track.

Training a goshawk promised the intensity and wildness she sought as an escape from her grief. And so Macdonald closets herself with a fierce-eyed, razor-taloned goshawk she names Mabel, withdraws from her domesticated world, and enters the bird’s wild one. She turns her sharp eye to falconry’s history, its symbolism, its male-centered culture. And she does not shrink from its bloody reality.

She describes herself breaking a felled rabbit’s neck to kill it quickly rather than let Mabel slowly eat it to death; she writes of her profuse bleeding from talon-swipes inflicted when Mabel mistakes her for a pheasant in a hedge. But the central story is of her bond with her hawk and the changes it wrought in her soul. The story begun in grief returns to it, as Macdonald brings her observer’s eye and poet’s voice to the universal experience of sorrow and loss. As deeply as she bonds with her hawk, in the end she must decide what wildness can and cannot do for the suffering human heart.

Chicago Tribune