This moving talk of grief and training a goshawk is the first memoir to win the prestigious literary prizeby Serena Kutchinsky / November 5, 2014 / Leave a comment
A memoir has won the literary world’s most prestigious prize for non-fiction for the first time. The poet and historian, Helen Macdonald, was awarded the £20,000 prize for H is for Hawk, a book the judging panel described as “unlike any other”.
The daughter of a famed Fleet Street photo journalist, Macdonald’s captivating tale reveals how training a bird of prey helped her deal with her grief over her father’s sudden death in 2007. In her moving acceptance speech, Macdonald thanked her family for keeping her motivated, and helping her deal with the loneliness inherent in writing a book.
A strikingly original and lyrical conceit, H is for Hawk is part misery memoir, part nature diary. Macdonald described her goshawk, Mabel, as representing “all the things I wanted to be in that state of grief.” The book also offers a peek inside the mind of the novelist TH White, author of The Goshawk, who tried to train the same bird of prey with less success in the 1950s. A closet homosexual and sadomasochist, White used falconry as a form of escapism, as Macdonald notes: “My reasons weren’t White’s… but I was running just the same.”
The chair of the 2015 judges, Claire Tomalin, praised the winner as a book “about an obsession with a wild creature… set in English landscapes observed with a visionary eye… Writing about wildlife and the environment has never been better or better informed than this,” said the journalist and biographer. Also on the judging panel were Alan Johnson MP, Financial Times Books Editor Lorien Kite, philosopher Ray Monk and historian Ruth Scurr.
H is For Hawk saw off stiff competition from a shortlist, described by many at the award ceremony as one of the finest in the prize’s 16-year-history. It included three other titles by women; The Iceberg by Marion Coutts, a moving account of her husband’s battle with a brain tumour; Alison Light’s Common People, a meditation on family and social mobility, and Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead. They were joined by Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity, an account of a 19th-century slave rebellion, and the most traditional book on the…