Entertainment & Arts

Hawk book wins £20,000 Samuel Johnson prize

Helen Macdonald and the jacket for her winning book Image copyright Presser
Image caption Macdonald is a professional falconer who has bred hunting falcons for Arab royalty

Author Helen Macdonald has won the £20,000 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for her book about how becoming a falconer helped her deal with grief.

H is for Hawk - described as "a book unlike any other" by the chair of the judging panel - is the first memoir to win the award, now in its 16th year.

In it Macdonald reveals how training her own goshawk helped her come to terms with the death of her father.

The poet and historian beat five other titles, three of them by women.

This year's shortlist, which included a biography of Roy Jenkins and a look at life in Vichy France, marked the first time female authors had outnumbered their male counterparts.

Speaking ahead of Tuesday's announcement, Macdonald, who lives near Newmarket, Suffolk, said she had developed an "obsession" with birds of prey from a young age.

After her father's sudden death, though, she became "desperate" to train a goshawk - a species, she said, that has "a reputation for being ruffians - psychopathic, bloodthirsty slayers".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Goshawks are fearless and determined predators

H is for Hawk recounts how she trained a female called Mabel, whom she said represented "all the things I wanted to be in that state of grief".

"She had no past or future, she just lived in the present. She was incredibly ferocious and full of life.

"I spent so much time with her I started to forget what it was like to be human at all.

"I ended up feeling like I was more like a hawk than a person. It really made me think very deeply about life and death.

"The book at heart is a love letter also to nature and the world around us."

Claire Tomalin, chair of the 2015 judges, praised 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," continued the judge, who is also a journalist and biographer.

BBC correspondent Nick Higham said it was unusual for the prize to go to a memoir rather than a history or biography, but the fact that it had showed the strength of Macdonald's work.

The author's success, announced on Tuesday at a ceremony at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, marks the first time a female author has won the prize in consecutive years.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett won last year's prize for The Pike, a biography of the Italian poet and politician Gabriele D'Annunzio.

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