I recently finished the audiobook of H is for Hawk, written and read by Helen Macdonald, and immediately wanted to write about it on my blog, to share this extraordinary book with the world. Then I discovered that it was already an international bestseller, and winner of numerous awards, and apparently everyone already did know about it, and deservedly so.
I was actually surprised to learn it was a bestseller, not because it isn’t good, but because it’s so unique, so personal, so specific. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, it is a memoir about the author’s efforts to train a goshawk after her own father’s death, weaving in a biographical account of T.H. White and his less-successful attempts to train a goshawk while dealing with his own life issues.
What inspired me most about the book was that it combined such obscure and personal narratives into something universal. Most people know very little about hawk training, much less about T.H. White, yet these things were meaningful to the author, and became a conduit for writing about larger themes that everyone can relate to, like love and loss, and primal instincts that have no name.
Since this is a nature blog, I do want to talk about that aspect of the book. Some critics have observed that this isn’t really a nature book at all, despite its reputation as one. Nature, they say, is something wild and untamed, while the main focus of this book is a tame and captive hawk, which does most of its hunting in suburbs and college campuses. But I think the wild nature of this particular hawk remains very much at the forefront of this book, which also explores some powerful themes of nature and what it means to be human. I agree that nature in its purest form exists far away from human civilization, but sometimes a thing has to be pulled out of context in order to study it and see it in a new light. So while nature isn’t the sole focus of this book — it deals much more with the lives of humans and their connection with nature — the themes of wildness and the natural world are very strong.
So, what exactly constitutes “nature writing”? It depends on who you ask, and the topic has received much debate lately, but I will save that for another post. For now, you can read an interview with Helen Macdonald here, and also here.
And here’s a video interview from the Sydney Writers’ Festival.