LONDON — A personal story of grief and raptors that combines memoir, biography and nature writing has won Britain's leading literary award for nonfiction.
Helen Macdonald's "H is For Hawk" was named the winner of the 20,000-pound ($32,000) Samuel Johnson Prize at a ceremony in London on Tuesday.
Macdonald's book describes her attempt to recover from her father's death by training a hawk, and also includes a biography of the late novelist T.H. White, who recounted his own experiences with birds of prey in "The Goshawk."
"H is for Hawk" is the first memoir to take the prize, founded in 1999 and usually dominated by history and biography. Biographer Claire Tomalin, who chaired the judging panel, said Macdonald's book had been the clear winner.
"We were all possessed by it," Tomalin said. "It just takes you over as you read it."
Tomalin said the goshawk that Macdonald attempts to tame "is a large, frightening, dangerous, murderous creature," and the memoir "is a book about an obsession. The author nearly goes mad."
"The English for years have loved sentimental animal books," she said. "This is completely unsentimental."
Macdonald beat five other finalists, including John Campbell's political biography "Roy Jenkins," Marion Coutts' illness memoir "The Iceberg" and Greg Grandin's account of a slave rebellion, "The Empire of Necessity."
Also shortlisted were Alison Light's family history "Common People" and Caroline Moorhead's "Village of Secrets," the story of townsfolk who hid Jews from the Nazis in occupied France.
Named for the 18th-century essayist and lexicographer, the Samuel Johnson Prize recognizes English-language books from any country in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts.