The shortlist for the tenth Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was announced on 2nd April 2019 and the winner will be crowned on Saturday 15th June at the Borders Book Festival. I was hoping to read all the books on the shortlist before the winner is announced but in the end I’ve only managed five of the six. I’ve also still to write full reviews of all the books I did read however you can find brief thoughts on the shortlisted books – and my prediction for the winner – below.
Click on the title to view the book description on Goodreads or my review.
A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey (Faber)
The author uses the Redex Trial, a car race around 1950s Australia, as the vehicle (excuse the pun) for several different story lines: the dissection of the marriage of Irene and ‘Titch’ Bobs; the gradual unearthing by their navigator, Willie Bachhuber, of who he really is; and and insight into the appalling history of the treatment of the aborigines and their culture. For me, the parts involving Willie and his journey of discovery were more compelling than either the events of the race or the relationship between the Bobs.
After The Party by Cressida Connolly (Viking)
This book is the only one I had read and reviewed before it appeared on the longlist. What I liked about the book was the way it explores the changing dynamics of the relationship between sisters Phyllis, Nina and Patricia and their different characters. I also liked the imaginative descriptions and quirky similes. However, overall I was left with a slight sense of disappointment; the feeling that the book was less than the sum of its parts. I’ll confess I was quite surprised to see it on the longlist and even more surprised it made the shortlist. This probably means it will end up winning!
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape)
Set in a small village in 1491, the book’s narrator is the priest John Reve. As he hears the confessions of his parishioners, the reader learns both about life in the village and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of one of its wealthiest inhabitants. The most intriguing aspect of the book is that the story unfolds in reverse. Although I found a lot to enjoy and admire about the book, I didn’t find the eventual reveal completely satisfying.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller (Sceptre)
This is the only book on the shortlist that I’ve yet to read so my comments are based purely on reviews by others whose opinion I respect. In her review, Helen at She Reads Novels described it as ‘a beautifully written novel’ although she found one or two aspects of the plot ‘unconvincing’ and would have liked ‘a much stronger sense of place’. Margaret at Books Please was drawn in immediately by the opening chapters but what really made the book ‘remarkable’ for her, she says, is ‘Miller’s ability to write in such a lyrical style, to convey emotions and create such complex characters that are so believable’. I think I’m likely to enjoy this one when I get round to reading it.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape)
This is probably my favourite of all the books on the shortlist, although that doesn’t necessarily mean I think it will win. With its striking opening line – ‘In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals’ – quirky characters (such as The Moth and The Darter) and depiction of a shadowy post-war London, the first part of the book which charts the experiences of Nathaniel and, to a lesser extent, that of his sister following the departure of their parents was the most compelling for me. The later parts in which Nathaniel sets out to discover the secrets of his mother’s past had a few too many convenient coincidences for me. However, as you would expect from an author of Ondaatje’s calibre, the book is beautifully written.
The Long Take by Robin Robertson (Picador)
Written in prose/verse, I found this account of a Canadian war veteran’s journey through the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York mesmerising, haunting and atmospheric. If, like me, you are a little daunted by the idea of its unusual narrative structure, I can highly recommend the audiobook version narrated by Kerry Shale. I thought his narration was outstanding and really brought the poetic quality of the book to life. Given the judges in recent years seem to have been drawn to books with distinctive narrators (Days Without End by Sebastian Barry in 2017 and The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers in 2018) and have described The Long Take as a book that ‘defies conventional literary boundaries’ and a ‘wholly original work of writing’, this is my prediction for the winner.
Am I right? We’ll find out on Saturday afternoon… If you’ve read any of the shortlisted books, what are your thoughts?