The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was founded in 2010 by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch and Alistair Moffat, the Chair of Judges. The Duke and Duchess wanted to mark the very great achievements of their distant kinsman, Sir Walter Scott, and celebrate the resurgence of the genre he created.
Past winners of the prize include Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel in 2010, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng in 2013 and An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris in 2014.
More information about the prize can be found here.
As historical fiction is my favourite genre, I was very interested to see the shortlist for this year’s prize which contains some familiar – and not so familiar – titles (to me, at least).
A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker (Doubleday)
When war breaks out in Europe in 1939, a young, unknown writer journeys from his home in neutral Ireland to conflict-ridden Paris and is drawn into the maelstrom. With him we experience the hardships yet stubborn vibrancy at the heart of Europe during the Nazis’ rise to power; his friendships with James Joyce and other luminaries; his quietly passionate devotion to the Frenchwoman who will become his lifelong companion; his secret work for the French Resistance and narrow escapes from the Gestapo; his flight from occupied Paris to the countryside; and the rubble of his life after liberation. And through it all we are witness to workings of a uniquely brilliant mind struggling to create a language that will express his experience of this shattered world. Here is a remarkable story of survival and determination, and a portrait of the extremes of human experience alchemized into timeless art.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Faber)
Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.
The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson (Faber)
When twenty-two-year-old Gerty Freely travels to Russia to work as a governess in early 1914, she has no idea of the vast political upheavals ahead, nor how completely her fate will be shaped by them. Yet as her intimacy with the charismatic inventor, Nikita Slavkin, deepens, she’s inspired by his belief in a future free of bourgeois clutter, alight with creativity and sleek as a machine. In 1917, revolution sweeps away the Moscow Gerty knew. The middle classes – and their governesses – are fleeing the country, but she stays, throwing herself into an experiment in communal living led by Slavkin. In the white-washed modernist rooms of the commune the members may be cold and hungry, but their overwhelming feeling is of exhilaration. They abolish private property and hand over everything, even their clothes, to the collective; they swear celibacy for the cause. Yet the chaos and violence of the outside world cannot be withstood forever. Nikita Slavkin’s sudden disappearance inspires the Soviet cult of the Vanishing Futurist, the scientist who sacrificed himself for the Communist ideal. Gerty, alone and vulnerable, must now discover where that ideal will ultimately lead.
The Good People by Hannah Kent (Picador Australia)
County Kerry, Ireland, 1825. Nóra Leahy has lost her daughter and her husband in the same year, and is now burdened with the care of her four-year-old grandson, Micheál. The boy cannot walk, or speak, and Nora, mistrustful of the tongues of gossips, has kept the child hidden from those who might see in his deformity evidence of otherworldly interference. Unable to care for the child alone, Nóra hires a fourteen-year-old servant girl, Mary, who soon hears the whispers in the valley about the blasted creature causing grief to fall upon the widow’s house. Alone, hedged in by rumour, Mary and her mistress seek out the only person in the valley who might be able to help Micheál. For although her neighbours are wary of her, it is said that old Nance Roche has the knowledge. That she consorts with Them, the Good People. And that only she can return those whom they have taken…
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford (Faber)
New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan Island, 1746. One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger fresh off the boat pitches up at a counting-house door in Golden Hill Street: this is Mr Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion simmering. For in his pocket, he has what seems to be an order for a thousand pounds, a huge amount, and he won’t explain why, or where he comes from, or what he can be planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money. Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him?
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift (Scribner)
It is March 30th 1924. It is Mothering Sunday. How will Jane Fairchild, orphan and housemaid, occupy her time when she has no mother to visit? How, shaped by the events of this never to be forgotten day, will her future unfold? Beginning with an intimate assignation and opening to embrace decades, Mothering Sunday has at its heart both the story of a life and the life that stories can magically contain.
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus)
What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in ‘neutral’ Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav’s father has mysteriously died, and his adored mother Emilie is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav’s childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows. As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav’s life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav’s are entwined.
Surprisingly (or perhaps, shamefully) for a self-styled historical fiction aficionado, I’ve only read one of the shortlisted titles – Hannah Kent’s The Good People. I do have Golden Hill and Mothering Sunday on my Kindle waiting to be read so I’ll have to shuffle them to the top of the pack. I intend to acquire the others and (try to) read them all before the winner is announced at the Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland on 17th June 2017.
I have to say, if it was judged on covers, then either Mothering Sunday or The Vanishing Futurist would be worthy winners in my book!
Have you read the short-listed titles?
If so, what would be your pick for the prize?
Do literary prizes influence your reading habits?