Helen Macdonald has won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for H is For Hawk (Jonathan Cape), making it the first time a memoir has won the award. Macdonald was announced as the winner of the £20,000 prize last night (4th November) at a ceremony at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London.
Author and historian Claire Tomalin, chair of the judging panel, said Macdonald had written a “book unlike any other”. The winning book was "written with acuteness of observation and with the ability to convey complex and shifting states of mind", she told the audience, adding that it "speaks of obsession, danger and love, and will speak to many readers now and for years to come."
Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles told The Bookseller: "As a bookseller, it is a thrilling result – it's a book I have already pressed into so many peoples hands, saying 'It's a book you will love', confident that it is so beautifully and passionately written, you can't help but become lost in it." He predicted: "It's very likely to become the strongest selling Samuel Johnson Prize winner so far."
H is For Hawk tells the story of how the death of Macdonald’s father triggered her to follow a childhood dream and become a falconer, obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. It is also a biography of the troubled novelist T H White, author of The Goshawk, in which he describes his own struggle to train a hawk. The Bookseller’s Caroline Sanderson called H is For Hawk a “deep, dark work of terrible beauty that will open fissures in the stoniest heart”. The book has sold 14,857 hardbacks (r.r.p. £14.99) via Nielsen BookScan since publication on 31st July. The Amazon Kindle edition is currently priced at just £1.49.
Tomalin said: “Congratulations to Helen Macdonald, who has written a book unlike any other, about an obsession with a wild creature, brought to life in prose sometimes technical and always striking, and set in English landscapes observed with a visionary eye. Writing about wild life and the environment has never been better or better informed than this.”
Macdonald, thanking agent Jessica Woollard, "the legend that is [Vintage publisher] Dan Franklin", and "astonishing" publicist Ruth Waldram, said she felt "deep joy that a book about the extraordinarily compex relationship between humans and the environment could win a prize like this", talking also of the "exquisite privilege" of being on a shortlist of extraordinary books.
This year’s shortlist included four female authors, the most in the prize’s history. They were Marion Coutts for The Iceberg: A Memoir (Atlantic); Alison Light for Common People (Fig Tree); and Caroline Moorehead for Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (Chatto & Windus). The other shortlisted titles were John Campbell’s biography Roy Jenkins (Jonathan Cape) and Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity (Oneworld).
Historian Ruth Scurr, one of the prize judges, spoke out in support of Moorehead's history, which has been the subject of a dispute over accuracy, with individuals mentioned in the book writing to the Prize to ask for Moorehead's book to be disqualified. Scurr said: "We were impressed by Caroline Moorehead's measured and intelligent prose – she is a calm and determined historian. We admired Caroline's courage in choosing an especially fraught and painful period of French history. We were saddened though not in the least surprised when Caroline's book was attacked in private emails and the national press."
Meanwhile Prize chair Stuart Proffitt took the opportunity of the prize-giving to give a public warning of the pressures on authors' incomes highlighted by this year's ALCS survey, pointing out that Samuel Johnson was a working writer all his life, and quoting his famous aphorism: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money".
With the impact on incomes of low e-book prices and heavily discounted physical books, he warned: "The danger is that many potential writers who could enrich our knowledge or provide us with wonderful entertainment will not do so," suggesting of the publishing and literary community: "We are perhaps not paying enough attention to this."