AT LEAST four of the six authors shortlisted for the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction will be at the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival in person.
Andrew Miller is already booked to appear in Melrose to talk about his stunning novel, Pure – one of the sextet selected by the prestigious award’s judging panel, chaired by festival director Alistair Moffat.
This week, Miller’s fellow nominees Alan Hollinghurst, Barry Unsworth and Sebastian Barry have also confirmed that they will be in Harmony Gardens for the award ceremony, which will be hosted by broadcaster and journalist Kirsty Wark in the main festival marquee at 1.30pm on Saturday, June 16.
Now in its third year, the most lucrative prize for that particular genre of novel in the UK will be presented to the winner by Hilary Mantel whose Wolf Hall lifted the inaugural award in 2010. Like Miller, Mantel will also have her own special slot at the festival.
“It really is quite a coup to have such a gathering of literary heavyweights together at one event,” admitted Moffat.
The prize, won last year by Andrea Levy for The Long Song, is again sponsored by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch with added commercial support this year from Jura Single Malt Whisky.
This means each of the shortlisted authors will have the opportunity to stay for a week in the exclusive writer’s retreat on the Hebridean Isle of Jura. This will be first time writers of historical fiction will use the retreat.
“Jura has a long literary history and the shortlisted writers will follow in the footsteps of George Orwell who wrote 1984 while staying on the island,” said Rob Bruce, head of PR with Jura Single Malt Whisky. Other writers who have plied their trade on Jura include festival favourite Alexander McCall Smith and Will Self.
Wark, the host of BBC 2’s Review Show, along with Professor Louise Richardson and Jonathan Tweedie, are newcomers to the judging panel which will also include existing arbiters Moffat, Elizabeth Laird and Elizabeth Buccleuch.
“Our criteria include originality, innovation, quality of writing and the ability of a book to shed light on the present as well as the past,” explained Moffat.
The short-listed novels
On Canaan’s Side
Narrated by Lilly Bere, who begins by mourning the loss of her grandson, Bill, Barry’s story goes back to the moment she was forced to flee Sligo at the end of the Great War and follows her life through into the new world – filled with hope and danger – of America. The epic and intimate narrative unfurls as Lily tries to make sense of the sorrows and troubles of her life and the people whose lives she has touched. In a novel of memory, war, family ties and love, Barry, winner of the Costa Prize for The Secret Scripture, again displays exquisite prose and a gift for storytelling.
What the judges said: “This is a real historical novel; writing that reeks of the period. The simplicity of the writing belies a deep empathy and understanding of his subject and characters.”
The Sisters Brothers
The author pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable tour de force with a remarkable cast of characters – losers, cheats and ne’er do wells from all areas of life. It tells of Hermann Kermit Warm whose death has been ordered by an enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore whose henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, are given the contract. However, their prey is not an easy mark and on the road from Oregon City to Warm’s gold mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli, for one, begins to question what he does for a living and why he does it.
What the judges said: “A tremendously enjoyable story with really valuable historical detail as well as dark humour.”
Half Blood Blues
It is Paris in 1940 and Heiro, a brilliant jazz musician, is arrested by the Nazis and never heard of again. He is 21, a German citizen and he is black. Fifty years later, his friend and fellow musician, Sid, relives that unforgettable time, revealing the friendships, love affairs and treacheries that sealed Heiro’s fate. From the smoky bars of pre-war Berlin to the salons of Paris, where the legendary Louis Armstrong makes an appearance, Sid leads the reader through a world alive with passion, music and the spirit of resistance.
What the judges said: “Illuminates a corner of history as yet unilluminated with emotions that almost become characters in their own right.”
The Stranger’s Child
In a sequence of widely separated episodes, the reader follows two families – the Sawles and the Valances – through startling changes in fortune and circumstance. At the centre of Hollinghurst’s richly comic history of sexual mores and literary reputation, beginning in the late summer of 1913, runs the story of Daphne from innocent girlhood to wary old age. The author draws an absorbing picture of an England constantly in flux: a nuanced exploration of changing taste, class and social etiquette, conveyed in witty and observant prose.
What the judges said: ”You cannot help relishing the elegance of his writing and the quality of the prose.”
It is 1785: a year of mummified corpses and chanting priests. A year of rape, suicide, sudden death and, also of friendship, desire and love. Deep in the heart of Paris, its oldest cemetery is overflowing, tainting the very breath of those who live nearby. Into their midst comes Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, provincial engineer charged by the king with demolishing it. At first Baratte sees this as a chance to clear the burden of history, a fitting task for a modern man of reason. But before long, he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery might be a prelude to his own.
What the judges said: “A wholly unexpected story, richly imagined and beautifully structured.”
The Quality of Mercy
The author returns to the terrain of his Booker Prize-winning novel Sacret Hunger, this time following Sullivan, an Irish fiddler, and Ersmus Kemp, son of a Liverpool slave-ship owner who hanged himself. It is the spring of 1767. To avenge his father’s death, Kemp has the rebellious sailors on his ship, including Sullivan, brought back to London to stand trial for mutiny and piracy. But the blithe Sullivan escapes and a twisting and turning tale of coincidence, ruthless capitalism and revenge ensues until the protagonists meet again in a classic denouement of the eternal struggle between the powerless and the powerful.
What the judges said: “A terrific story which successfully knits political, historical and personal strands.”