The judges of the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction announced its eleventh shortlist today.
The six-book shortlist is:
The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey (Atlantic); The Parisian by Isabella Hammad (Jonathan Cape); To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek (Canongate); Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker); The Redeemed by Tim Pears (Bloomsbury); and A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland (Penguin South Africa).
The judges said: ‘In times of crisis, historical fiction is both reassurance (nothing is completely new) – and escape, so it’s with almost medicinal pleasure that we unveil the eleventh Walter Scott Prize shortlist which offers, we hope, a measure of both.
‘Set aside your anxieties and smell greasepaint with Bram Stoker. Share Leo Sercombe’s incredulity as the German fleet scuttles at Scapa Flow. Lament, for Stephen Mzamane, the injustices in the nineteenth century Anglican church. With Thomas, Will and the Lady Bernadine, delight in a fourteenth century linguistic tour-de-force. Linger inside the minds of the artist Edward Hopper and his wife. And savour a glorious twentieth century epic of the Middle East written with such sparkling immediacy you’re more witness than reader. Six books from writers as varied as they are talented. Six books to absorb. Six books to fortify. Enjoy them all!’
The judges of the 2020 Prize are Katie Grant (chair), Elizabeth Buccleuch, James Holloway, Elizabeth Laird, James Naughtie and Kirsty Wark.
First awarded in 2010, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction honours the inventor of the historical fiction genre, Sir Walter Scott, and is sponsored by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch.
Previous winners include Hilary Mantel, Andrea Levy, Sebastian Barry, Tan Twan Eng, Robert Harris, John Spurling, Simon Mawer, Benjamin Myers, and Robin Robertson. The winner receives £25,000, and this year each shortlisted author will receive £1,500, making the Walter Scott Prize amongst the richest fiction prizes in the UK.
Historically the winner has been announced in June at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland.
However, due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the festival has been postponed and the mode of announcement of this year’s winner is currently being reviewed. In the meantime, the judging process continues unaffected, and plans for announcing the winner will follow soon.
Of the shortlisted books, the judges said:
The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey (Atlantic)
‘The Narrow Land is a quiet tour-de-force placing art at the heart of historical fiction. By framing her portrait of the marriage of Edward and Josephine Hopper in one hot summer, 1950, at their house in Cape Cod, Christine Dwyer Hickey captures the intensity and sometime destructiveness of the relationship, and the impact on it when Michael, a child of a concentration camp, comes to stay nearby. The author manages a rare thing: she reveals the impetus of Hopper’s art, writing beautifully about light, angles and shade in an effortless way so that we only gradually, and thrillingly, become aware that we are seeing things as Hopper did.’
The Parisian by Isabella Hammad (Jonathan Cape)
‘Isabella Hammad has written a ground-breaking first novel. Her subject is the unequal relationship between the Levant and Western Europe before the First World War, and she paints it on her huge canvas with extraordinary skill and confidence. She takes us with her characters as they move between Palestine, France and Europe. We see vividly what they see, and feel what they feel. We are there with them. These are layered, real people and they remain with the reader long after the book is finished. The Parisian is an important book. It speaks with freshness and originality, illuminating a period of history with which few of us are familiar.’
To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek (Canongate)
‘This is a most extraordinary novel, set in the 14th century, but with messages of great potency for our own extraordinary times. On the surface it is the tale of a band of disparate characters who for their own reasons are bound for Calais. Some seek battle, others love, and some a desire for adventure outwith their own feudal prisons. It is also a time when the Black Death threatens to ravage them all as it flows like the tide towards them. This narrative is anything but “ordinary”. The language with its different dialects, makes it ambitious and challenging. Meek uses it to highlight the social divisions that are then erased by the journey and the plague. We need to let ourselves flow with it, recognizing the book’s deep humanity which suggests that survival depends on collaboration and fellowship. Brimful with comedy, wit, fantasy, violence and love, it is a dazzling provocation. It uses history to underline the importance of hidden truths and imperfections which are the foundations of the human condition.’
Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker)
‘Joseph O’Connor’s deep dive into late Victorian theatreland is a glittering portrait of characters as luminous in their tumultuous private lives as they are on stage. The story explores the turbulent emotions of three souls pulled together in the unforgiving glare of that limelight – those of Ellen Terry, her lover Henry Irving and Dublin-clerk-turned-theatrical-manager Bram Stoker – in which the passions and torments of the two most celebrated actors of their day are reflected through the imagination of the author who would later create Dracula, the gothic novel to end them all and the father of a million nightmares. O’Connor’s mastery of dialogue and character, his effortless recreation of time and place, make this an exhilarating journey through dark streets, theatre dressing rooms and bright stages, in which walk-on parts for the likes of Oscar Wilde and W.B.Yeats seem only natural. The characters spring from his pages, fully-dressed for performance. A historical novel to stir the senses, and perhaps the blood.’
The Redeemed by Tim Pears (Bloomsbury)
‘The final part of Tim Pears’ West Country trilogy sees country-boy Leo come to manhood. The feudal world he grew up in, so lyrically described, is blown apart by the guns of Jutland. Life after the Great War will never be the same. But Leo’s passion for horses, shared by Lottie the squire’s daughter, endures and unites them. The judges were impressed by the author’s skill in his unflinching descriptions of violence and despair as well as hope and love. ‘
A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland (Penguin South Africa)
‘It’s a rare book that punishes the sins of the past with beauty, but Marguerite Poland knows the power of doing just that. Quietly, implacably, in writing that cuts to the heart of the matter, she draws us into the life of Stephen Mzamane, a young South African trained for Christian missionary work, eager to serve both God and his own people but hampered by conflicted loyalties and the entrenched prejudices of both society and the Anglican Church. Set in the late nineteenth century, the bells of Canterbury and the bells of Africa ring out a story of what was, what might have been, and what in some places, shamefully, still is. An important story, then, and a difficult one, but in the hands of Marguerite Poland, a story luminously told.’
Full details about the prize, shortlisted books and the judging panel can be found on the Walter Scott Prize website www.walterscottprize.co.uk.