An academic’s memoir of training a hawk while grieving the death of her father won Britain’s prestigious Costa Book Award.

It is the second leading award given to Helen Macdonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’, after the book became the first ever memoir to win the non-fiction Samuel Johnson Prize in November. Macdonald, 44, a Cambridge University historian and illustrator, said it was an ‘extraordinary privilege’ to have been shortlisted and thanked readers who had shared their stories of grief.

‘It’s made me very, very moved,’ Macdonald said. Appropriately, she had written the book in a Costa cafe, the brand that sponsors the award, the author noted. ‘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,’ she joked. Formerly called the Whitbread award, the Costa Book Award was established in 1971 to celebrate British and Irish writing and £30,000 is awarded to the winner ($46,000, 40,000 euros). The bookmakers’ favourite to win had been Ali Smith’s ‘How to be Both’, but ‘H is for Hawk’ was an obvious winner, said novelist Robert Harris, who chaired the judging panel. ‘Several people felt very passionately that it haunted them and they would never forget it,’ Harris said. ‘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.’

In the memoir, the death of Macdonald’s father reignites an obsession with birds of prey held since childhood. She buys her goshawk Mabel on a quay in Scotland for £800 (1,000 euros), and takes her home to Cambridge where her freezer is stocked with hawk food. Macdonald unplugs the phone and begins a year in seclusion as she trains the wild creature using traditional falconry methods while dealing with her grief.

The story is interwoven with a biography of troubled novelist TH White, who decades earlier gave an account of his struggles to train a hawk in the 1951 book ‘The Goshawk’. Last year’s prize went to ‘The Shock of the Fall’, a debut by Nathan Filer drawing on his experience as a mental health nurse.