For Tan Twan Eng, the Walter Scott Prize tells the world history and historical fiction matters and will always matter.
Tan pipped a short-list of writers that included double Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel and Pat Barker to win the historical fiction award and the accompanying £25,000, on Friday night at the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival in Melrose.
Tan’s novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, wowed the judges, and the win by the Cape Town-based author was clearly a popular choice with those who packed the Festival Marquee in Harmony Garden.
The judges had commented: “The Garden of Evening Mists is the book that left the deepest imprint on us. Set in the jungle-clad highlands of Malaya, this year’s winner leads us into the troubled aftermath of World War Two.
“It is pungent and atmospheric; a rich, enigmatic, layered novel in which landscapes part and merge, and part again.”
The award ceremony was presented by BBC Radio Four’s James Naughtie, and four of the shortlisted authors were present to hear the announcement.
As well as his cheque, Malaysian-born Tan also received a striking glass sculpture from the Duke of Buccleuch, sponsor of the prize and distant kinsman of Sir Walter Scott.
The Walter Scott Prize is one of the UK’s richest literary prizes, and honours Scott’s achievements and his place as one of the world’s most influential novelists.
Accepting the award, Tan thanked all those connected with the festival, including the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch for their “wonderful spirit” in creating the award four years ago.
The first overseas novelist to win, Tan told the audience he had never been to Scotland or the Borders before.
“But now I’ve been here, I don’t think I want to leave, so you’ll have to evict me,” he said to applause.
“In my country and I suspect in many other countries around the world, history is not considered important anymore.
“We are often told look to the future and not the past; we want to forget and are not interested.
“So a prize like the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction plays an important role in telling the world that history and historical fiction matters and will always matter.
“In my books, I have written about the past and history but whenever people tell me I’m a historical novelist, I take a step back, look around, and think they’re describing somebody else. To me, the past is so real, so close, so present - it is all around us still and will always be around us.”
Speaking to The Southern the following day and asked what he intended to do with the prize money, Tan said it would buy time. “It buys a sense of financial security. It means not having to worry about day-to-day bills for a while. It buys you time.”
And he said he would love to return to the Borders and festival one day: “It was lovely to have been invited. I have found people here to be incredibly warm, friendly and generous.”
And he says festivals such as the Borders event are important: “I think people love seeing the person behind the book. I just hope they’re not disappointed when they see the writer of this particular book!”