Who doesn’t love historical fiction? Well, actually we don’t all that much, but we don’t judge those who do! Instead we leave that up to the actual judges. This year six titles are shortlisted for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. If you’ve never heard of the award before here’s it’s description as pulled from the Borders Book Festival Website:
The Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction was founded in 2009, and honours the achievements and legacy of Sir Walter Scott, the founding father of the historical novel. Sponsored by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, the prize is worth £25,000 to the winner, and is awarded at the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival in Melrose, in June every year.
For the purposes of the Prize, a historical novel means that the majority of the events described take place at least 60 years before the publication of the novel, and therefore stand outside any mature personal experience of the author.
Past winners include Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and Andrea Levy’s The Long Song. We’ve listed each of this year’s finalists below with a brief description of the novel along with a hyperlink to our review where applicable. The winner will be announced in mid June.
By Pat Barker
From Booker Prize winner Pat Barker, a masterful novel that portrays the staggering human cost of the Great War. Admirers of her Regeneration Trilogy as well as fans of Downton Abbey and War Horse will be enthralled.
With Toby’s Room, a sequel to her widely praised previous novel Life Class, the incomparable Pat Barker confirms her place in the pantheon of Britain’s finest novelists. This indelible portrait of a family torn apart by war focuses on Toby Brooke, a medical student, and his younger sister Elinor. Enmeshed in a web of complicated family relationships, Elinor and Toby are close: some might say too close. But when World War I begins, Toby is posted to the front as a medical officer while Elinor stays in London to continue her fine art studies at the Slade, under the tutelage of Professor Henry Tonks. There, in a startling development based in actual fact, Elinor finds that her drafting skills are deployed to aid in the literal reconstruction of those maimed in combat.
One day in 1917, Elinor has a sudden premonition that Toby will not return from France. Three weeks later the family receives a telegram informing them that Toby is “Missing, Believed Killed” in Ypres. However, there is no body, and Elinor refuses to accept the official explanation. Then she finds a letter hidden in the lining of Toby’s uniform; Toby knew he wasn’t coming back, and he implies that fellow soldier Kit Neville will know why.
Toby’s Room is an eloquent literary narrative of hardship and resilience, love and betrayal, and anguish and redemption. In unflinching yet elegant prose, Pat Barker captures the enormity of the war’s impact–not only on soldiers at the front but on the loved ones they leave behind. (from the hardcover edition)
The Daughters of Mars
By Thomas Keneally
In 1915, two spirited Australian sisters join the war effort as nurses, escaping the confines of their father’s dairy farm and carrying a guilty secret with them. Used to tending the sick as they are, nothing could have prepared them for what they confront, first in the Dardanelles, then on the Western Front.Yet amid the carnage, Naomi and Sally Durance become the friends they never were at home and find themselves courageous in the face of extreme danger, as well as the hostility they encounter from some on their own side. There is great bravery, humour and compassion, too, and the inspiring example of some remarkable women. And in France, where Naomi nurses in a hospital set up by the eccentric Lady Tarlton while Sally works in a casualty clearing station, each meets an exceptional man: the kind of men for whom they might give up some of their precious independence – if only they all survive.At once vast in scope and extraordinarily intimate, The Daughters of Mars brings the First World War to vivid, concrete life from an unusual perspective. A searing and profoundly moving tale, it pays tribute to the men and women who voluntarily risked their lives for peace. (from the hardcover edition)
Bring Up the Bodies
By Hilary Mantel
The sequel to Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and New York Times bestseller, Wolf Hall delves into the heart of Tudor history with the downfall of Anne Boleyn
Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice.
At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over three terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies follows the dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally with his natural enemies, the papist aristocracy. What price will he pay for Anne’s head? (From the hardcover edition)
By Anthony Quinn
In 1882, David Wildeblood, a 21-year-old from rural Norfolk, arrives in London to start work at the offices of a famous man. As an ‘inspector’ for Henry Marchmont’s hugely successful weekly The Labouring Classes of London, his job is to investigate the notorious slum of Somers Town, near the new St Pancras Station, recording house by house the number of inhabitants, their occupations and standard of living. By mapping the streets in this way, Marchmont intends to show the world the stark realities of poverty in its greatest city.
Befriended by Jo, a young coster, and his sister Roma, David comes to learn the slang of the hawkers and traders, sharpers and scavengers, magsmen and mobsmen, who throng the teeming byways of Somers Town. It is a place of Darwinian struggle for survival. And the deeper he penetrates the everyday squalor and destitution the more appalled he is by mounting evidence that someone is making a profit from people’s suffering.
A dinner at the Kensington home of his godfather Sir Martin Elder introduces him to Kitty, Elder’s only daughter, and to a cabal of prominent citizens who have been plotting a radical solution to the problem of London’s poor. David belatedly realises that a conspiracy is afoot. Passionate but reckless in his urge to uncover it he finds his life in danger, sustained only by the faithfulness of a friend and, ultimately, the love of a woman.
In The Streets Anthony Quinn reconstructs an unforgettable picture of Victorian London, encompassing the extremes of privilege and privation, from the baronial mansions of the rich to the ‘whited tombs’ of the slums. With shocking poignancy and pin-sharp detail he brings to life a world of terrible degradation, yet one redeemed by dark comedy, profound fellow-feeling and the enduring possibility of love. (from the hardcover edition)
The Garden of Evening Mists
By Tan Twan Eng
Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambridge and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan.
Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon comes.’ Then she can design a garden for herself. As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to her sensei and his art while, outside the garden, the threat of murder and kidnapping from the guerrillas of the jungle hinterland increases with each passing day.
But the Garden of Evening Mists is also a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? Why is it that Yun Ling’s friend and host Magnus Praetorius, seems to almost immune from the depredations of the Communists? What is the legend of ‘Yamashita’s Gold’ and does it have any basis in fact? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all? (from the hardcover edition)
Merivel: A Man of His Time
By Rose Tremain
The gaudy years of the Restoration are long gone. Robert Merivel, physician and courtier to Charles II, loved for his ability to turn sorrow into laughter, now faces the agitations and anxieties of middle age. Questions crowd his mind: has he been a good father? Is he a fair master? Is he the King’s friend or the King’s slave?
In search of answers, Merivel sets off for the French court. But Versailles – all glitter in front and squalor behind – leaves Merivel in despair, until a chance encounter with Madame de Flamanville, a seductive Swiss botanist, allows him to dream of an honourable future.
But will that future ever be his? Back home at Bidnold Manor, his loyalty and medical skill are tested to their limits, while the captive bear he has brought back from France begins to cause unlooked-for havoc in his heart and on his estate.
With a cascade of lace at his neck and a laugh that can burst out of him in the midst of torment, Merivel is a uniquely brilliant creation, soulful, funny, outrageous and achingly sad. He is Everyman. His unmistakable, self-mocking voice speaks directly to us down the centuries. (from the hardcover edition)
Have you read any of the six novels on The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2013 Shortlist? Which was your favorite? Comment below and let us know which titles to read, and which to avoid.