I don’t think I am an especially fussy reader, but I am sometimes mystified by the runaway success of certain books. This is the case with the much-garlanded “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald, which has recently topped the Sunday Times bestseller list for general paperbacks. I doubt whether I would have read it all had I not been doing so for my book group, which would have been a pity since I did warm to it in its latter stages. The author rather swoops on the reader from the off and pecks mercilessly at them, so I shall assess her book from a prey’s-eye (i.e. this reader’s) viewpoint.
The book is an account of how the author reacted to the overwhelming grief she felt upon her father’s death by immersing herself in training and then hunting with a goshawk. Since childhood she has been obsessed with falconry, has read everything she can find on the subject, and has worked with other kinds of predatory birds. Training a goshawk, however, is apparently a much harder task owing to the particularly complex characteristics of the animal. The book deals with the vicissitudes of their time together, and with the author’s cathartic quest to heal her grief.
Birds of prey are indeed enigmatic and fascinating creatures, and I must say that the book contains a good deal of interesting and absorbing material about them and their place in human history. There is also some excellent and evocative writing about landscape and the natural world. The author is an affiliate at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, so it is no surprise that her work includes a large body of appropriately learned references. The summaries of classic accounts of falconry, that she scatters around the text and sets against her own experiences, are highly informative and are used to good effect. Her device of running the goshawk-training ordeal of the writer T.H. White (as described in his book “The Goshawk” from 1951), parallel to her own, adds an extra dimension (although the distinctly crackers-sounding White is a curious choice of role model for someone in acute emotional distress).
But having read a dozen pages or so, I made the following note of my impressions to date: “Frantic, breathless, gushing, relentless emotional churning – it’s all me, me, me!” These early impressions, I’m afraid, persisted for much of the book. I felt as you do when someone sits next to you in the pub and talks endlessly at you, rather than with you, about themselves. There is also a constant striving for everything to be deep and meaningful, which becomes grating. For me, she makes the cardinal error of taking the reader’s interest in her life, and her every internal preoccupation, for granted, without actually earning it. We have all suffered bereavement, but she does not make me empathise with her condition in particular. This is because she does not establish herself as a sympathetic person, nor establish her deceased father and their former relationship as a reality I can genuinely care about.
There is an abiding self-absorption in the work, and an inability to filter out her internal chatter, that I found tough going and tiresome. Other characters who appear are only incidental to what is happening inside her. When she wants you to pay especial attention to something she is saying, she shouts it in your ear by putting it in italics! And then there is the whole matter, in itself, of “training” these quintessentially wild animals. She describes how she sets about imprisoning her goshawk Mabel, hooding her, and systematically manipulating every aspect of her existence. I sometimes wanted to shout: Why don’t you leave the poor bird alone? The bird (and the struggle to master her) is only ever there as an avatar in the author’s own psychodrama.
To be fair, the author does exhibit some self-knowledge as matters progress. At one point she recognises that, “the narcissism of the bereaved is very great” (p 152). And at another, after a bout of self-pity, she mentally shouts “Get over yourself, Helen,” at herself (p 208). She does come to question the morality of subordinating a wild animal to her own purposes, and does become uncomfortable with her complicity in the animal’s savage bloodthirstiness when they are out hunting together, which they do regularly after the training has been successful.
In time, the author decides that attempting to exorcise her grief by exposing herself to nature red-in-tooth-and-claw is a bit silly really, and she only starts to recover properly after a sensible doctor puts her on anti-depressants. She becomes more likable to me as her obsession with the goshawk shrinks, but then again what do I know of wild animals? My cat offers me simple companionship, and does me the kindness of committing any acts of savage predation he has in mind out of my sight.