Reviews of Walter Scott Prize contenders

2014 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
2014 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Reviews of Walter Scott Prize contenders In our final two reviews of contenders for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, Texas and New Zealand are the backdrops.

The Promise by Ann Weisgarber: Review by Bridget McCann

Every so often a novel comes along that quietly gets under your skin from first word to last. This is one such gem, so that, even months on, I feel a loss that these characters and their world are no longer in my life.

The setting is Galveston Island, Texas in 1900, against the backdrop of the worst storm in American history. But we cannot ignore the impact on young pianist Catherine Wainwright of being a woman living at the turn of the century, without position or power, and driven from society. It is her ensuing desperation that drives this unfolding love story.

The characters are beautifully and honestly drawn, their flaws and failings only making them more vulnerable and human. But this “narrow bar of dirt and sand, water on all sides,” is as vital to the feel of this novel as the people, the salty air, the heavy Texan heat and the sounds of this weathered landscape. Weisgarber paints such a vivid description of the storm water which steals over this flat land that I was left wanting to shout out “Run for your lives!”

You will not be able to put this book down and will be moved by this story of redemption and of promises kept.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: Review by Sally Gillespie, The Southern Reporter

What more can be said about the Man Booker prize-winning The Luminaries from the competition’s youngest winner, Eleanor Catton? It’s a stunning book, Catton’s second, and deserving of the many plaudits it has garnered. The Observer describes it as ‘a dazzling feat’, the Independent praises its ‘sheer rip-roaring readability’ but not all have enjoyed, with the Standard’s David Sexton describing the prose style as ‘annoying’ and writing: “Catton never shows, she tells.”

The action is set in the 28-year-old author’s native New Zealand, in the South Island west coast town of Hokitika during the 1860s gold rush, and starts with unsupecting prospector Walter Moody arriving at his hotel where the book’s characters are seated.

Written in the style of a 19th-century novel, The Luminaries deals in secrets, sex, opium and murder, all manner of nefarious goings on really. It’s complex – at the least, characters are associated with the astrological zodiac – but it’s hugely readable and Catton at all times remains in command of the exquisitely crafted work, which at 832 pages achieves another Man Booker first by being the longest to win the prestigious prize.