Helen Macdonald wins Costa Prize for H Is For Hawk

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A MEMOIR about training a hawk by writer, poet and historian Helen Macdonald last night beat bookies’ favourite How to be Both, by Scottish novelist Ali Smith, to win the prestigious 2014 Costa Book of the Year.

H is for Hawk is Macdonald’s account of training a goshawk as a way of dealing with grief following her father’s death.

Helen Macdonald shows off her award-winning book. Picture: Getty

Helen Macdonald shows off her award-winning book. Picture: Getty

The announcement that Macdonald had scooped the £30,000 prize was made at a glittering awards ceremony in London.

Accepting her award, she said it had been an “extraordinary privilege” to be shortlisted and thanked her readers, whom she said had shared their own stories of grief. “It’s made me very, very moved,” she said.

Macdonald also revealed that, fittingly, she had written the book in a ­Costa’s branch, in Newmarket. She joked: “I’m sure that when I go in again next week for a cup of tea they might even buy me a slice of cake.”

Bestselling novelist Robert Harris, who chaired the judging panel, said the book was a clear winner. He said: “Several people felt very passionately that it haunted them and they would never forget it and 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”.

The Cambridge academic’s story of her attempts to train a Goshawk after her father’s death has already won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. It tells the story of her relationship with the bird, her grief and recounts the life of the novelist TH White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk details his attempts to train a bird using traditional ­falconry methods.

Harris said: “The way it melds the memoir about grief, a biography of TH White and also this sort of wonderful evocation of nature and a hawk, it does something quite unique”.

He said the judges spent 90 minutes deciding on the winner before voting, with Macdonald a clear victor on the first ballot. He added that every book was “enjoyed” and “considered a possible winner”.

Inverness-born Smith, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014 but lost out to Australian Richard Flanagan, was 5-4 to win, according to bookmakers William Hill.

Her novel, How to Be Both, tells the story of a grieving 15-year-old girl in the present day mourning her mother and is interwoven with the tale of Francesco del Crossa, a long-­forgotten 15th-century Renaissance artist.

Smith, who won the Whitbread Novel of the Year in 2006 with The Accidental, was made a CBE in the New Year Honours List.

Previous Costa winners include Hilary Mantel and Nathan Filer, whose debut novel, The Shock Of The Fall, won last year. All shortlisted writers receive a £5,000 prize.

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