JUST a stone’s throw from Melrose Abbey, where the head of Robert the Bruce is buried, the UK’s premier award for historical fiction was presented to Andrea Levy at a glittering ceremony on Saturday, writes Andrew Keddie.
The 55-year-old, born in London to Jamaican parents, received the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize from award sponsor Richard, Duke of Buccleuch, in the main marquee of the Borders Book Festival.
The setting in the gardens of Harmony House was particularly poignant as the winning book, The Long Song, Levy’s fifth novel, is about the legacy of slavery.
The 19th century house was built by a Melrose joiner who named it after the Jamaican pimento plantation where he made his fortune.
An illustrious judging panel, comprising Elizabeth Buccleuch, Elizabeth Laird, Allan Massie, David Robinson and Gavin Wallace, said of the winning book: “Andrea Levy brings to this story such personal understanding and imaginative depth that her characters leap from the page with all the resilience, humour and complexity of real people.
“The Long Song is quite simply a celebration of the triumphant human spirit in times of great adversity.”
The author, whose book was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, told the sell-out crowd she was “very honoured” to receive the prize, adding: “This is a generous literary prize which focuses attention on an important aspect of the role of fiction which can, and must, step in where historians cannot go because of the rigour of their discipline. Fiction can breathe life into our lost or forgotten histories.
“My subject matter has always been the key to what and why I write – a shared history of Britain and those Caribbean islands of my heritage. I would like to remember all those once-enslaved people of the Carribean who helped to make us what we are today.”
Levy began writing in her mid-30s, attracting critical acclaim immediately with her first novel, the semi-autobiographical Every Light in the House Burnin’.
Her fourth novel, Small Island (2004), won the Whitbread Book of the Year award, the Orange Prize for Fiction, and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was made into a television drama, broadcast by the BBC in 2009.
The author, whose maternal great-grandfather was Scottish, was declared the winner by festival patron Rory Bremner who compered the ceremony. Earlier, the actor Robert Powell (Jesus of Nazareth, The 39 Steps) read extracts from the six shortlisted books, all vying for the fifth most lucractive literary award in the UK.
The other contenders were Tom McCarthy (C), David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), Joseph O’Connor (Ghost Light), C. J. Sansom (Heartstone) and Andrew Williams (To Kill a Tsar).
The inaugural prize was won last year by Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall.
To be in contention for the Walter Scott Prize, the events described in the novel must take place at least 60 years before publication, thus standing outside any mature experience of the author. This definition comes from Tis Sixty Years Since – Scott’s subtitle for Waverley.
The spirit of Scott was much in evidence at Saturday’s ceremony, the Duke having brought a painting of his distant kinsman, along with the great writer’s original plaid of shepherd’s check.