The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2019: Who Will Win?

WalterScottPrizeThe 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.

WalterScottPrize 2019 Shortlist

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? 

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Throwback Thursday: The Magpie Tree by Katherine Stansfield

ThrowbackThursday

Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme originally created by Renee at It’s Book Talk.  It’s designed as an opportunity to share old favourites as well as books that we’ve finally got around to reading that were published over a year ago.

Today I’m revisiting a book published in March 2018 – The Magpie Tree by Katherine Stansfield.  It came to mind because I was browsing the forthcoming releases by a few of my favourite publishers – yes, I know I should be concentrating on reading the books I already have! – and saw that the next book in the author’s ‘Cornish Mysteries’ series, The Mermaid’s Call, is due to be published by Allison & Busby in September.  You won’t be surprised to learn it was quickly added to my wishlist!


The Magpie Tree CoverAbout the Book

Jamaica Inn, 1844: the talk is of witches. A boy has vanished in the woods of Trethevy on the North Cornish coast, and a reward is offered for his return.

Shilly has had enough of such dark doings, but her new companion, the woman who calls herself Anna Drake, insists they investigate. Anna wants to open a detective agency, and the reward would fund it. They soon learn of a mysterious pair of strangers who have likely taken the boy, and of Saint Nectan who, legend has it, kept safe the people of the woods. As Shilly and Anna seek the missing child, the case takes another turn – murder.

Something is stirring in the woods and old sins have come home to roost.

Format: Hardcover, paperback, ebook (320 pp.)   Publisher: Allison & Busby
Published: 22nd March 2018 Genre: Historical Fiction, Historical Mystery

Purchase Links*
Publisher | Amazon.co.uk  ǀ  Amazon.com  ǀ Hive.co.uk (supporting UK bookshops)
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find The Magpie Tree on Goodreads


My Review

The book’s compelling opening line, ‘The day I went to Jamaica Inn was the day I saw a man hanged’, brought to mind Daphne du Maurier and the opening lines of her novel, My Cousin Rachel: ‘They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.’    Indeed, in the first paragraphs of the book, the author inserts plenty of enticing nuggets of information and clues about what may have occurred in the previous book in the series, Falling Creatures.  As a reader, I was at once intrigued and curious to learn more about the characters I was meeting and what their experiences had been up until now.

And what interesting characters are our two protagonists: Shilly, and the woman who calls herself Anna.  There are hints of some sort of tragedy in Shilly’s past, which in part explains her weakness for alcohol to try to keep the demons at bay.  Shilly is sensitive to those forces that can’t be explained by science, seeing visions that at times provide valuable information.  Or perhaps they’re nothing more than the manifestations of over-indulgence.  Anna is the complete opposite – although they do say opposites attract, don’t they?  She’s practical, preferring factual explanations for seemingly strange events over belief in superstition or magic.  Shilly recognises this difference between them: ‘On the moor, in the woods, wherever we were in Cornwall, there were things she couldn’t make sense of.  Things she needed me for.’  However, just like Shilly, there are elements of Anna’s previous life that are a mystery also.  Together Anna and Shilly make an unconventional and engaging crime detecting partnership.  However, it’s a partnership in which Anna definitely wears the trousers (and often not just metaphorically).

Shilly and Anna learn of the reward being offered by landowner, Sir Vivian Orton for information about a missing local boy and, since they are in need of funds and Anna is keen to further her ambition of becoming a detective, they travel to Trethevy to begin their investigation.    Suspicion has fallen on two women new to the area, ‘furriners’ believed by the locals to be involved in witchcraft and to have spirited the boy away.  I’m not going to say anything more about the plot but leave you to discover it for yourself.  However, eventually Shilly and Anna do uncover the solution to the mystery but not before sins of the past have been revealed and a kind of retribution has taken place.

There is some gorgeously sensual writing and I also loved the inclusion of fragments of Cornish dialect.  The author injects an air of mystery and the supernatural into the story that provides an extra dimension.  For example, the spooky magpie tree of the title, considered by some of the locals to be sacred, that has shades of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’.  There is also a sense of the forces of nature at work, such as the forest that seems to shift in order to help, hinder, confuse, hide or reveal.    The book also engages with the notion of difference, with the two women suspected of involvement in the disappearance being regarded with suspicion and becoming convenient scapegoats largely because they are ‘furriners’.

I loved The Magpie Tree.  It ticked all the boxes for me as a historical mystery: intriguing story line, interesting and engaging central characters, great period detail and atmospheric location.   Immediately I turned the final page, I added the previous book in the series, Falling Creatures, to my wish-list and I’ll be eagerly awaiting news of the next book in the series.

I received a review copy courtesy of publishers, Allison & Busby.

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In three words: Atmospheric, intriguing, mysterious

Try something similar The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin (click here to read my review)


 

Katherine StansfieldAbout the Author

Katherine Stansfield is a novelist and poet whose debut novel, The Visitor, won the Holyer an Gof Fiction Award.  She grew up in the wilds of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall and lived on the west coast of Wales for many years. (Photo credit: Keith Morris) 

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