H is for Hawk is part memoir, part how to guide, part biography. It weaves together Helen Macdonald’s experiences training a goshawk after her father’s death, her observations about her grief and journey through it, and T.H. White’s experiences training his own goshawk almost a century earlier. It’s a very compelling and also very peculiar book.
While I was in the middle of reading it, an internet friend of mine summed up her own experience of it as “brilliant but uneasy” and I keep thinking that this is the perfect way to encapsulate the tensions that pervade the book. Macdonald’s narrative voice carries the reader through the sometimes jagged connections between the threads. She has keen insights into grief, herself, the birds, the landscape she encounters while training Mabel–and a lovely turn of phrase.
At the same time, I keep circling back to the sections about T.H. White. Macdonald includes his story because it fascinated her as a child, because it operates as a warning of how not to train your hawk, because White himself fascinates her and she often defines herself in opposition to him. But it’s an uneasy fascination; as far as I know, and based on the self-portrait in the book, Macdonald is straight, so is it fair for her to take on the subject of White’s tortuous feelings about his own sexuality? I don’t know. She is certainly sympathetic, but sympathy is not everything, and I still just don’t know how to take the comparisons she seems to draw between her grief and White’s self-loathing. There’s perhaps a failure to consider the external cultural forces that are present in White’s case which are not present in her own. Or am I simply oversimplifying what is meant to be a more complex relationship? I do know that I remain uneasy about this aspect of the book.
On the positive side, Macdonald has a great ability to show why she loves hawking while also interrogating its questionable history and less beautiful moments. She’s writing from a position of some privilege and that sometimes shows in ways I suspect she’s not entirely aware of. At the same time, she is willing to engage with the complexities around her, including one of the best passages on the problems with nostalgia for landscapes that I think I’ve ever read.
Despite my overall occasional ambivalence, I would say this one is worth reading for the beauty of the language, that voice which starts in the first sentence and pulled me right in. H is for Hawk is not always an easy book, not always one I agreed with, but I’m also glad that I read it.