British author Helen Macdonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’ claims second top book award

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 January, 2015, 4:19pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 February, 2015, 6:39pm

British author Helen Macdonald’s searing memoir about how she coped with the grief of her father’s sudden death by training a goshawk has won her a second prestigious literary prize.

Macdonald’s book H is for Hawk, which has received almost universal critical praise, won the 2014 Costa Book of the Year award last night in London.

READ MORE: the South China Morning Post book review of 'H is for Hawk'

The Cambridge University historian and naturalist won on the first ballot chosen by the panel of nine judges, jury president and novelist Robert Harris said.

The book also garnered the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in November.

Macdonald, 44, said she had not expected to win, and had not expected the book to have the cathartic effect that it did.

“When I finished it and literally wrote the last sentence a weight fell off me that I’d been carrying around and the person that I was writing about in the book finally was gone,” she said.

“It felt like a real goodbye to my dad and the person that I was, so it was cathartic and I didn’t expect it to be.”

She attributed the book’s success in part to what she said was a long tradition, particularly in Britain, of books about people’s relationship with nature and animals.

“This bird that people think is a symbol of wildness and ferocity is in fact both a murderous creature, but also something that plays with the kitten and watches television with me,” she said.

Ali Smith’s How to be Both had been bookmakers’ favourite to win and claim £35,000 (about HK$407,000) in prize money, but H is for Hawk was a decisive winner, Harris said.

“Several people felt very passionately that it haunted them and they would never forget it,” Harris said.

In the memoir, the death of Macdonald’s father, Alisdair, reignites an obsession with birds of prey held since childhood.

She buys her goshawk, Mabel, on a quay in Scotland for £800, and takes her home to Cambridge, where her freezer is stocked with hawk food.

Macdonald unplugs the phone and begins a year in seclusion as she trains the wild creature using traditional falconry methods while dealing with her grief.

Harris said Macdonald’s book was not only a tale of her grief, and the challenge of training a bird of prey, but had also interwoven a biography of the late T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King, who also had tried to train a goshawk.

“Everyone agreed it was brilliantly written, wonderful kind of muscular prose really, precise scalpel-like prose and staring at grief with the unblinking eye of a hawk,” he said.

“It was a very clever and accomplished piece of writing that wove everything together.

“It does something quite unique and actually it does something that’s quite relevant to the Costa Prize which ... spans different genres of writing, so in a way it was a natural.

“Some books win prizes because they demand it and then the public don’t quite get it, but this is a book I think everyone will like.”

The other contenders were Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing, Jonathan Edwards’s debut poetry collection My Family and Other Superheroes and Kate Saunders’s Five Children on the Western Front.

Additional reporting by Associated Press