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? 


Book Review: Fled by Meg Keneally

FledAbout the Book

She will do anything for freedom, but at what cost?

Jenny Trelawney is no ordinary thief. Forced by poverty to live in the forest, she becomes a successful highwaywoman – until her luck runs out.

Transported to Britain’s furthest colony, Jenny must tackle new challenges and growing responsibilities. And when famine hits the new colony, Jenny becomes convinced that those she most cares about will not survive. She becomes the leader in a grand plot of escape, but is survival any more certain in a small open boat on an unknown ocean?

Format: Paperback (400 pp.)    Publisher: Zaffre
Published: 15th April 2019 Genre: Historical Fiction

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Find Fled on Goodreads

My Review

Meg Keneally’s debut solo novel is described as ‘an epic historical adventure based on the extraordinary life of convict Mary Bryant’.  In her historical note, the author explains where the story departs from known facts – relatively few occasions, as it happens – and where fictional characters replace their real life counterparts.

The prologue, set in 1791, provides a taste of the remarkable events that will unfold but first of all the reader is transported back in time to Cornwall in 1783.  When Jenny Trelawney’s fisherman father is killed at sea, she chances upon highway robbery as a way to keep her family from poverty.  This is despite her fear of ending up as one of the grisly corpses displayed at the crossroads, Four Turnings.  (Perhaps a little nod there to the opening lines of Daphne du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel: ‘They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days’.)  Her encounter with the mysterious highwayman, Mr. Black, draws Jenny further into a life of crime that ultimately sees her convicted of robbery and sentenced to death.

The commutation of her sentence to transportation seems like a lucky escape until the horrors of the voyage to Australia are revealed.  Once there, and now with the protection of a husband, Dan Gwyn, things are little better.  The newly established convict colony struggle to support themselves.  Starvation and disease are always close at hand.  Contrary to the actions of the Governor and his staff, Jenny welcomes contact from the indigenous people who provide valuable information that enables the colonists to survive, but only barely.  Jenny also benefits from help from a rather unexpected source.  (I initially thought it was a bit too convenient and rather unlikely but learned from the author’s historical note that it is based on fact.)

Jenny realises there is no future for her and those she loves in Australia and sets out to convince Dan and others that escape is the only option, notwithstanding the perils that await them at sea.  As she says, their most valuable asset is that they possess “The skill to leave, and the courage to do it’.  Those perils are thrillingly brought to life in the part of the book I found most compelling.  After what can only be described as an epic adventure on the high seas, Jenny and her companions seem to have reached safety but will it prove short-lived or is there a possibility of a more hopeful future?

Jenny (or rather her real life counterpart, Mary Bryant) is a remarkable character brought convincingly to life by the author.  Jenny’s determination to take control of her own destiny is admirable and not easily resisted by those around her.  When she remarks to husband, Dan, “You are a brave man” he replies, “Not brave enough to defy you.”  Fled is a compelling and skilfully told story of courage, resolve and fortitude that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I received a review copy courtesy of publishers, Zaffre, and Readers First. Fled is the first book from my 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge list.

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In three words: Compelling, atmospheric, dramatic

Try something similar…The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Meg KeneallyAbout the Author

Meg Keneally started her working life as a junior public affairs officer at the Australian Consulate-General in New York, before moving to Dublin to work as a sub-editor and freelance features writer. On returning to Australia, she joined the Daily Telegraph as a general news reporter, covering everything from courts to crime to animals’ birthday parties at the zoo. She then joined Radio 2UE as a talkback radio producer.

In 1997 Meg co-founded a financial service public relations company, which she sold after having her first child. For more than ten years, Margaret has worked in corporate affairs for listed financial services companies, and doubles as a part-time SCUBA diving instructor. She lives in Sydney with her husband Craig and children Rory and Alex. (Photo credit: Goodreads author page)

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