skygiants: (swan)
[personal profile] skygiants
I have read Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk twice now and not yet succeeded in writing it up, but I am going to make a solid go of it now and we'll see what happens.

The trouble with trying to write up H is for Hawk is that it is such a deeply personal book, for Helen Macdonald, that I don't know what to say about it that won't sell it short or misrepresent it somehow. I often have this trouble with writing about memoirs, in a way I don't with fiction or biographies -- because as you all should know by now, the tone I am most comfortable writing these posts in, perhaps regrettably, is 'flippant,' and what right do I have to be flippant about another person's profoundly personal experience?

And the other thing that makes this hard is that I expect most of you have heard of it, or at least seen it in bookstores on the bestseller table, because it was weirdly and wildly popular for a deeply personal memoir about grief and a goshawk and the author T.H. White, with whom Helen Macdonald has no connection whatsoever except through his own weird book about grief and a goshawk. (The best review of White's The Goshawk was from [personal profile] rushthatspeaks in 2011, and you can read it here. I also read the book, but I couldn't figure out how to write about it any more than I can figure out how to write about this one, so I wrote less eloquently about Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography of T.H. White instead.) So what can I say that you won't have seen on the book cover, that this is a book about those things?

I guess I can say that I felt I understood this book better in December of 2016 than I did in January of 2016, because I was lucky enough, in January of 2016, not to understand grief very well.

And I guess I can also say that when I read it in December of 2016, it was for book club, and the thing we found ourselves talking about the most is that we're not sure after all that Helen Macdonald understands T.H. White very well -- or at least, not as well as she thinks, or at least, none of us were entirely comfortable with her understanding of him, an (apparently?) straight woman putting most of another person's troubles down to the Tragedy of Being A Gay Man. The trouble is, I guess, that Helen Macdonald's book, for the most part, is about discovery; she's learning about her hawk, and she's learning about her grief, which means that neither her own motivations nor the hawk's are entirely clear most of the time. The process of figuring them out makes the book what it is.

But she's not learning about T.H. White, or at least, that's not the way she's writing it. She tells us about him like she knows him and can understand his motivations already. And honestly, T.H. White is a complex enough figure that I don't think anybody does, or can.
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