A look at the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction finalists

Thirteen novels are in contention for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

The competition celebrates outstanding historical novels published in the UK, Ireland and the Commonwealth, with a £25,000 prize for the winner, with settings spanning from the 8th century BC up to the 1960s, and from all four nations of the United Kingdom to Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, the West Indies and the Punjab.

First awarded in 2010, and sponsored by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction honours the inventor of the historical fiction genre, Sir Walter Scott, whose 250th anniversary celebrations continue into 2022. The Prize judging panel comprises Katie Grant (chair), Elizabeth Buccleuch, James Holloway, Elizabeth Laird, James Naughtie and Kirsty Wark.

The winner receives £25,000, and each shortlisted author is awarded £1,500, setting the Walter Scott Prize amongst the richest fiction prizes in the UK.

Earlier this week we revealed the titles of the novels, and today we take a look at each of them in turn. The contenders are:

Blue Postcards, by Douglas Bruton (Fairlight Books)

An experimental novella written in 500 postcard-sized paragraphs, set in post-WW2 Paris, interweaving three narrative strands and timelines, including the point of view of renowned French artist Yves Klein, whose obsession with the colour blue runs like silk thread motif throughout. A meditation on the way memory reshapes itself over time and on the nature of truth and lies.

Snow Country, by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson Heinemann)

Set in Vienna, first during WW1, and then under the looming shadow of the rise of Fascism as WW2 approaches, the novel follows the lives of a small group of individuals trying to make their way in the new, terrifying world, whilst still mourning the loss of the old. An epic novel about youth, hope, suffering and redemption.

Rose Nicolson, by Andrew Greig (Riverrun)

Set in the late sixteenth century, during the troubled and violent years of James VI, the novel follows William Fowler as he embarks on his student life in St Andrews, and as he first encounters Rose, the woman who will prove to be the love and lodestar of his life.

Mrs England, by Stacey Halls (Manilla Press)

1904, and Norland trainee nanny Ruby May is posted to a remote Yorkshire mansion, home of mill-owner Charles England and his wife, Lilian, to care for their four children. But Lilian seems detached and lonely, and in the background remains the mystery of Ruby May’s own impoverished family in Birmingham, to whom she sends most of her wages each month.

The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small, by Neil Jordan (Lilliput Press)

Follows the life of freed American slave Tony Small, who arrived in Ireland in the 1780s, and his relationship with Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the parliamentarian aristocrat turned guerrilla republican, whose life Small had saved on the battlefields of the American War of Independence, and who rewards Small with his emancipation papers and lifelong employment. But what will become of Small once his benefactor is no longer by his side?

The Sunken Road, by Ciarán McMenamin (Harvill Secker)

Set during WW1 and the Irish Civil War, turning on two pivotal stories in Ireland’s history — the foundation of the State, and the Protestant memory of WW1 – the novel follows the story of a brutal IRA man, who now needs the help of his childhood sweetheart, and sister of his dead friend, to cross the border to safety.

The Fortune Men, by Nadifa Mohamed (Viking)

When a local shopkeeper in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay is murdered, Mahmood Mattan learns that 1952 Britain is not necessarily the haven of justice he thought it was, and must fight to clear his name, against conspiracy, prejudice and the inhumanity of a state where innocence is, sometimes, simply not enough.

News of the Dead, by James Robertson (Hamish Hamilton)

Set in the fictitious Glen Conach in north-east Scotland, the stories of three different eras unfurl, linked by place and an ancient manuscript, but separated by centuries. The narratives weave together to explore the space between the stories people tell of themselves — what is forgotten and what is invented — and the stories through which they may, or may not, be remembered.

China Room, by Sunjeev Sahota (Harvill Secker)

Entwines the stories of a young bride trying to discover the identity of her new husband in 1929 rural Pujab, and a young man battling heroin addiction in turn-of-the-twenty-first-century northern England, who takes enforced flight from Britain to spend a summer in Pujab with an uncle, armed only with whisky and a reading list that reflects his inner turmoil and preoccupations.

Fortune, by Amanda Smyth (Peepal Tree Press)

Catches 1920s Trinidad at a moment of historical change, as the oil-rush begins and Eddie Wade happens upon a would-be investor who seems to have the power to make true Eddie’s dreams of sinking his own well. But the partnership also brings the beautiful Ada, into the picture, and into Eddie’s life forever. A thrilling Shakespearean tragedy of a story, about love, lust, ambition, destiny, and human frailty.

Learwife, by J.R Thorp (Canongate)

The story of the most famous woman ever written out of history, Shakespeare’s dead King Lear’s Queen, exiled to a nunnery, but now with a chance to tell her story, and to seek answers, despite her grief and rage, whilst grappling with her past and the terrible choice she must make and upon with her destiny rests.

The Magician, by Colm Tóibín (Viking)

Through the life of Thomas Mann, Tóibín tells the awe-inspiring story of the twentieth century, in a novel about love, intimacy, family, exile, war and creativity, spanning three generations, and managing to secure itself as both epic and intimate in equal measure.

Still Life, by Sarah Winman (Fourth Estate)

A historical sweep of a novel, beginning in 1944 in the ruins of a wine cellar in Tuscany, as a young British soldier and a sixty-something art historian meet, bombs falling around them. The connection they make will shape the young man’s life over the coming decades, as the novel moves between the hills of Tuscany, the grand piazzas of Florence and the East End of London, exploring themes of love, family, beauty and destiny.

Previous winners of the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction are: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2010); The Long Song by Andrea Levy (2011); On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry (2012); The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (2013); An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (2014); The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling (2015); Tightrope by Simon Mawer (2016); Days without End by Sebastian Barry (2017); The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers (2018); The Long Take by Robin Robertson (2019); The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey (2020); and The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (2021).

A shortlist – usually six books – will be announced in April, and a winner announced in mid-June at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland (June 16-19).

Full details of the prize, longlisted books and the judging panel can be found on the Walter Scott Prize website www.walterscottprize.co.uk.