(One of 10 Best Books of the Year, NY Times, Time Magazine, The Oprah Magazine, Library Journal, Amazon (20), etc., and also recommended by three MillersTime readers. Additionally, it was the winner of a number of prizes, including the Samuel Johnson Prize, the annual British prize for the best non-fiction writing in the English language and the Costa Book Award, one of the most outstanding books of the year written by authors based in UK and Ireland.)
I recently finished and was fascinated by the book H is for Hawk. Written by Helen MacDonald, it is a memoir about her grief at the loss of her father and the unusual way she ‘grieved’ in the year following his unexpected death.
Memoirs have always been a favorite form of non-fiction for me, especially well written ones, such as MacDonald’s. Generally, grief memoirs seem to take one of two forms: one written during the immediate time following the death of a spouse, parent, child, or friend or one written after the period of grief has passed. (One of my favorites of the first category is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. For the latter category, and even more a favorite, I have read and reread Kay Redfield Jamison’s Nothing Was the Same.)
Written five years after her father’s death, MacDonald’s memoir falls into the latter category and recounts the extraordinary period of time in which she both lost and found herself.
H is for Hawk is actually three interwoven stories. It recounts the famous author T.H. White’s unhappy and unsuccessful experiences in trying to train a goshawk; it recounts MacDonald’s experiences with training her goshawk (Mabel) and attempting to deal with her grief, and it also tells the story of Mabel.
Of the three narratives, I found myself only moderately interested in White’s experiences, although they do give a good framework for MacDonald’s own experiences. Nor was I quite as absorbed in Mabel and the intricacies of falconry as some readers seem to be, although that is a large part of the H is for Hawk. For me, the most fascinating part of the memoir was MacDonald’s struggles with her grief, how she handled (mishandled?) that, and what she did and didn’t learn about herself and about her loss of her father.
As I usually do, I will leave the details and discoveries in the book to those of you who may yet read it.
I will add, however, that Ellen and I spent a wonderful evening last night at Politics and Prose Bookstore listening to and getting to know more about MacDonald. It was perhaps one of the best book talks we’ve attended. Within that one hour, we were treated to a wonderful summary of her book and numerous insights into MacDonald’s life, writing, and personality.
Some things we learned in the question and answer period:
- Mabel has died. MacDonald now owns a parrot.
- MacDonald is not currently ‘falconying,’ although she hopes to have time to return to it in the coming year.
- Movie rights have been purchased to the book.
- MacDonald was shocked by the wide spread response and success of her book and never dreamed it would have interest beyond a small audience.
- It took her four days, which she described as very long, tiring, and emotionally draining, to make the audio recording of the book.
- Writing about Mabel, even though done five years after the events recorded in the book, was the easiest part of the writing for her (and her best writing in my estimation).
- MacDonald purposely left out the stories of her still living mother and brother, and even details about her father, as she didn’t want to tell their stories for them. The memoir is her story and her way to say goodbye to her grieving self.
- H is for Hawk is a “language centered” book, in MacDonad’s words and also her way of telling the world about hawks and falconry.
- MacDonald told the audience “Although they are killers, goshawks have no guile nor deceit and are honest and solitary.”
Much the same could be said of Helen MacDonald herself.