Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk is one of the most highly praised books of 2015 and I was eager to read it. After finally getting to the No. 1 spot on the library hold list (I started at 177), I could not wait to start reading it. Then I did and found myself not liking it, or more accurately enjoying half of it and forcing myself through the other half.
The book opens with the sudden, shocking death of Macdonald’s father. This sends her off-kilter and she resolves to seek comfort and solace in the wild by training a goshawk, the wildest and most difficult bird of prey to train. Falconry has been a life-long interest, one her father introduced her to as a child. She has worked with falcons for years and even taught falconry, but this will be a challenge. And a challenge is what she thinks she needs now, to come back from her grief. This was interesting, and fascinating to read.
The other thread in her book is her fascination with T. H. White and own disastrous training of a hawk that he wrote about in his book, The Goshawk. MacDonald parses everything she possibly can from that book, his journals, biographies of him and his essays. I hated all of it. It felt precious and false. As though MacDonald saw her book was thin and maybe not intellectualized enough. Perhaps it’s too personal, too anguished, too reified. So, dress it up with all sorts of criticism and interpretation of this author and his work. That part for me was a total failure. It was clear from the outset that White was a failure at training and that entire experience would be tragic.
MacDonald did not eschew the advice of experts, she was the opposite of White in all ways but one. They both sought healing in the wild challenge of training a hawk, but she only needed to heal grief. White needed to heal the pain of his entire life, a life of horrific parental abuse, a life of shame and mortification for his illicit sexual orientation, a life of self-loathing. Grief is much easier to heal.
The only way I can recommend H Is For Hawk is to recommend reading only her own story and skipping the parts about White, but that is more than half the book. I will say, there are moments that I love her writing so much. She has a clear and honest way of writing about the wild that is thrilling. She also recognizes the wild can be found among people as well as out in isolation. That is good. If that were the entirety of her book, I would rate it 4 stars, but it is not. Far too much of the book is claptrap about White that alternately bored me silly or sickened me at his ignorant abuse of that poor bird. It was too much White, too little MacDonald and that made the book a slow, hard slog.