A “soaring triumph” they said. A must read. A critical and popular success, winning every literary award in sight. Then what was the matter with our book group? Why didn’t we appreciate this monumental achievement? Were we dense? Not sophisticated enough to plough through a memoir that supposedly uses the taming of a hawk as a metaphor for dealing with grief? Nah… this is a group that’s plenty sophisticated. We’ve read obscure, complex books of all genres so I don’t think that was our problem with the hawk story.
For the most part, H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald neither moved nor engaged us. Many members of our group have had experience dealing with various kinds of grief and we were not convinced by the author’s sorrow metaphor. Aside from telling us that she was really upset about losing her father she does not involve us in her personal life in any meaningful way so that we could feel some sympathy for her. If you’re trying to get readers to connect to your sadness, you must do more than describe a bird’s demeanor. People do come and go throughout the book but Helen is only interested in the hawk. At one point she drops a line that she had a relationship that fell apart while she was dealing with the bird. Really? Couldn’t she spend a couple of paragraphs at least summarizing that interlude? To make her seem more relatable? Or even say a bit about her mother – even if she was clearly not the favored parent?
We all agreed that we had struggled to get through this book that seemed more like a training manual than a meditation on sadness. And frankly we were not interested in learning how to tame a wild creature that should have been left to nature to begin with. For some of us, the most moving part of the book was Macdonald’s digression into the story of T.H. White (author of The Sword in the Stone) who also tried, unsuccessfully, to train a hawk. His tragic childhood at the hands of his sadistic parents nearly brought some of us to tears. An emotion that we should have felt for Helen.
The author is clearly depressed and probably on the brink of a breakdown even before she loses her father. His death is a terrible shock. But I’m sorry to say, it is nowhere near the horror of losing a child or a spouse. Helen’s efforts to solicit our compassion prove fruitless.
There was one member of our group whose thoughts on the book were not as hostile as those of rest of us. She tried valiantly to convince us of the author’s insights into depression and self-imposed isolation and how everyone grieves differently. We understood what she was saying, we just didn’t feel it.
Occasionally when our group is not particularly impressed by a book some of us feel like curmudgeons. In the case of H Is for Hawk my distaste was confirmed by another book group, made up of a much younger crowd and with not a curmudgeon among them. Interestingly, the group also includes a young woman who lost her father at an early age and who also could not rouse any sympathy for our heroine.
So, if you want to know what all the fuss is about, go ahead read the book. But if you’re expecting a moving memoir about losing someone close and coming to terms with it, you’ll only get a story that lands flat.
– Miria Ioannou
Images courtesy WikiCommons