H is for Hawk is a memoir, but more accurately put it’s made up of three parallel parts: nature writing, grief memoir, and something of a biography of the writer, T. H. White. In the nature writing sections Helen Macdonald talks of her experience in training a goshawk – the trials that came with the process, the actual steps and mishaps, the mistakes and the realization – all part of the process of training an animal. There’s also a further exploration of falconry and its history – she talks not just of her own experience with animals (birds in particular) but also of others experiences and stories, of the historical context in which falconry first became popular, its link to society in medieval times, and how its place has changed within the present time. She describes her outings with Mabel, her goshawk, as she meets people on the streets, in the woods, flying Mabel. How people react to her and Mabel, and also how she reacts towards other people after spending more time with Mabel than other human beings. The nature writing parts of this book is probably what I enjoyed the most. I felt they were the most solid too in terms of writing, there were sections of beautiful descriptions of nature. There were interesting observations too, for example she talks of the complicated history behind our perceptions of beautiful nature and ‘natural’ nature too. What is beautiful and admirable nature, what sort of environments are glorified are not simple facts, true in a vacuum. Instead, our perceptions of the world, nature included, is very much linked to the historical and social context around us. Of course, there’s also the subjectivity that comes with talk of beauty but her point still made for some reflection.
The next part is the grief memoir aspect of the book. Helen Macdonald lost her father and started writing this book shortly after, as far as I can tell. Her decision to start training a hawk is sort of a response to that. She talks of her father, about her process in dealing with his death, how to learn to comprehend the finality of his existence and of how she could continue to live in a world where he was no longer alive. Because for me, that is what most of her actions comes down to – trying to figure out how to live again, starting over, going forward, but also sometimes going backwards. It shows in her odd choices and destructive behaviours, in her seeming to be lost for some time before making her way back into the world, or rather human society. I think there are many parts of this section that are very honest, even when things she’s said or done are far from praiseworthy. The honesty was what I liked best about this part of the book. However, there were things mostly to do with the writing that I didn’t like so much. She mentions somewhere in the book that she was very influenced by Freud’s psychoanalytical theories in college, or something along those lines, and I feel she was still very much inspired by this theoretical perspective when writing this book. The overanalyzing is very imminent in the book, from start to finish. She overanalyzes her own actions, her own thoughts, her own feelings; she dissects everything and tries to put meaning into things where there might not be any. But she goes further to put meaning not only in her own story but also in the people around her; Mabel, her father, and T. H White, for instance.
The last third of the book, the T. H. White bits, was definitely what I liked least about this. She writes about T. H White as if he was a fictional character, or better yet as if she knew him personally. She recounts his life, not just in terms of his writing but paints a picture of his house, the interior design of it, his job as a teacher, his behaviour towards the students, his feelings towards the hawk, and much more. For me it would’ve been fine had she stuck to his writing, the things he has actually written (I’m guessing parts of her descriptions are based on his words, other things based on people who knew him but the source is rarely evident in the text) and in particular her feelings and reactions to his writing. Those parts, the literary criticism type parts, I did enjoy. I liked seeing her dissecting his words, especially in his book ‘The Goshawk’ where he is training a hawk and she is paralleling it with her own experience. But I just couldn’t accept the descriptions of his actions and feelings or thoughts (“He looked at ..”, “He thought about..”) as if she knew this man who she never met, and not simply knew him, but intimately so. Had this been set out to be a biography of T. H. White, it would’ve been easier to swallow since you’d know a good biographer would do a great deal of research and would also be good at referencing the sources. But in this book, the way she writes an almost biographical account of T. H. White felt out of place. Then there’s her tendency to overanalyze things, which as I said is a problem for me in general with this book. When I say overanalyze I mean she often puts meaning into things after the fact, with a mindset and from a perspective in the present that doesn’t necessarily reflect the thoughts of the past self. Or looking with modern eyes on a historical event, a historical person or concept. Of course it’s a human trait to try to find meaning in things, to want to make sense of the world, to put things in order. I’m guessing most of us do it to some extent on a regular basis. And in itself, the search for knowledge is just that – putting meaning into things that perhaps had no clear meaning before, making sense, ordering, etc. But if she wanted to include it in the book, personally I think the book could’ve done without it, I’d prefer to see a clear reasoning for her conclusions along the way too.
All in all, I think there were pieces of beauty and of honesty, and more importantly some things especially the way humans perceive other animals, and how we put (human) meaning onto animals, were rather thought provoking and very much worth reading. For me personally her writing style and perhaps even her way of seeing the world sometimes got in the way of enjoyment and of connection to this book, but I don’t regret reading it – I’m going to further explore in particular nature writing as its what I liked most about H is for Hawk.