Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape), winner of last year's Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, has won the £30,000 Costa Book of the Year Award.
The book's triumph was announced last night (Tuesday 27th January) at a ceremony in central London, at which novelist Robert Harris, chair of the prize judges, also launched an outspoken attack on the BBC for its lack of TV books coverage.
Harris said H is for Hawk had been a "decisive winner" of the award, already acknowledged as a modern classic, doing "something quite unique" in its blend of grief memoir, T H White biography and "wonderful" evocation of nature. "Several people felt very passionately it was a book that haunted them", he said, paying tribute to its "wonderful, muscular prose, precise and scalpel-like, staring at grief with the unblinking eye of the hawk."
Meanwhile Macdonald, in her acceptance speech, thanked "all booksellers up and down the country" whom she'd met following publication of her book, later telling The Bookseller, "A lot of booksellers felt personally invested in it; it was a real word-of-mouth book and it's amazing the support I've had from them." She also thanked her readers, saying, "So many have suffered their own losses and griefs, and it made me very moved", as well as "all the people in Newmarket Costa's, who watched a strange woman tapping away in the corner," as she wrote the book. Asked in the press conference following the ceremony whether she would be spending the prize money on a new hawk, she joked that she'd be buying "a very beautiful aviary."
Harris also had praise for the originality of the other Book of the Year category winners - debut novel Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (Penguin), Ali Smith's novel How to be Both (Hamish Hamilton), poetry collection My Family and Other Superheroes by Jonathan Edwards (Seren) and children's book Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders (Faber) - which had been in contention for the top award.
Elizabeth is Missing he described as "very technologically accomplished, very relevant with [its theme of] Alzheimers, doing a first-rate job of conveying what Alzheimers feels like. My mother died of Alzheimers and it gave me insight into her struggles with language." Meanwhile Ali Smith had "strong support", he said, calling How to be Both "technically ambitious, a book that lingers in the mind whether you like it or not, a formidable achievement."
Of Edwards, he said, "We all loved the poetry; it seemed to take Welsh mining villagers and transfer them into [the mythic status of] Greek gods; a really remarkable achievement." Five Children on the Western Front, he said was "brilliant at this time we remember World War One, the way she threw the characters forward into the maelstrom of the First War War, much more than a rewrite like Bond, interrogating E Nesbit."
Harris went on to thank Costa for supporting the prize, saying it was important in drawing attention to British publishing at a time when it was fighting for attention. "With one or two exceptions, the newspapers are really scaling back coverage," he lamented, before castigating the BBC for failing to support the books industry with sufficient TV coverage - a poor comparison with the early 1970s when the Costa [then Whitbread] prize was launched, and BBC TV sported both Robert Robinson's "The Book Programme" and "Read All About It" with Melvyn Bragg. "There is no dedicated books programme on the BBC; I really do think the BBC should have one...I do wish the BBC would fulfil that part of the Charter remit," he said, calling the lack of one a "disgrace", particularly given the degree to which books contribute as the basis for films and TV series. Harris was a BBC journalist before beginning his career as a writer.
A BBC spokesman responded to the critique, saying: “We have dedicated programming like Radio 4’s 'A Good Read' and BBC Four’s 'The Secret Life of Books', run the BBC National Short Story Award, and introduce millions to new books through adaptations like 'Wolf Hall', 'The Casual Vacancy' and Radio 4's 'Book at Bedtime'.”
Harris was also asked whether, given his comments on supporting British publishing, he was against the Man Booker's recent opening up to international entrants. The novelist commented: "Man Booker, a global firm, want to be recognised across the biggest markets in the world. It's the naivete of British publishers, if they have invested too much in the Booker it's their own fault if it is carted to New York." He added: "I like this prize [the Costa]. It's in touch with readers."
Also judging were writers Maggie O’Farrell, Bernadine Evaristo, Jonathan Stroud, Owen Sheers and Wendy Moore, actress Dame Diana Rigg, the BBC’s economics editor Robert Peston, and actress Samantha Bond.