I find myself voraciously consuming books about grief. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, was received with rapture by critics earlier this year; a New York Times review called it ‘breathtaking’; it won awards.
A friend gave it to me, thinking I would find solace in it; the book has been promoted as the story of a young woman coping with her father’s sudden death. I expected it to be about grief and loss. It wasn’t at all. It was about Ms. Macdonald’s relationship with a hawk.
The New York Times has just listed it as one of the ten best books of 2015, and I want to speak up about it, to let others know that this is not a book that will help someone who is grieving.
Here are my journal entries as I read the book last summer:
Reading H is for Hawk and feeling somewhat outraged. Where is her poor father? He almost doesn’t exist. Or her mother and her grief? Her father was a photographer. He was out taking photos one night when he had a heart attack and died. The last photo in his camera was taken from the ground; perhaps it was taken as he was having his heart attack. Ms Macdonald says she looked at it once and never wanted to see it again, like it was something too horrible to consider. Really? I’d cherish that photograph. That was her father saying, “Look! I am dying and this is what I am seeing.” It says to me what an amazing man her father was, capable of documenting even that (like the female scientist in the film “Brainstorm”). It was her father saying, “This—death—is also worthy of documentation.” An incredibly courageous and beautiful act, and you don’t want to look at it?! Here is a gift from your father of his last impressions and you don’t want it? I can’t understand this.
H is for Hawk reminds me of another grief memoir, by a woman who lost her mother (The Long Goodbye, by Meghan O’Rourke). It is self-indulgent in similar ways. In these memoirs about the death of parents, and admittedly my sample size is still quite small, the authors don’t seem consumed by grief like I was, like what C.S. Lewis describes in A Grief Observed. They skip over the emotions of grief and spend most of their time on themselves, on how they healed. H for Hawk is like Wild, where the grieving ‘child’ goes on an epic journey of self-discovery. But:
Do they wrestle with their relationship with the person who died? Is their book about becoming a better person because of that wrestling, or is it about taking on a difficult task to distract them from grief?
I would say the latter is true for H is for Hawk.
Read more in Hawk. She writes short passages on life and death, yet they don’t seem profound to me at all. Her father is still a mystery and barely mentioned. Her grief is just assumed, like of course she’s sad because her father died. ‘Nuff said. There’s no substance to it, it doesn’t make you feel anything when she says she’s grieving, sometimes I think she read what other people said grieving was like to be able to throw in a comment here or there. And even these are astoundingly infrequent.
I came home and finished H is for Hawk. What a disappointment. I read some 1-star reviews for it on Amazon yesterday while filling a few minutes before going to a dinner engagement. I agreed with all of them: boring, all about hawks, nothing about father, self-indulgent, has emotional problems not connected to grief, pretentious, anytime she came close to sharing an emotion or feeling she’d duck and run, padded with T.H. White in an incredibly annoying fashion (a large section of the book wasn’t about her at all, it documented the author T.H. White’s struggles to learn how to be a falconer).
Who are these literary types who certify books like this as ‘dazzling’ and lavish awards? My only conclusion is these critics have no idea what grief is.