Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 24, 2021

2021 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction Longlist

Thanks to Marg at the Intrepid Reader for the news that four Australians are among the authors longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction…

I’ve read some of these and most of these were on my radar, but there’s a couple I hadn’t come across.

  • Hinton, by Mark Blacklock (Granta)
  • The Tolstoy Estate, by Steven Conte (HarperCollins Australia), see my review
  • The Year without Summer, by Guinevere Glasfurd (Two Roads) — I’ve previously read her The Words in My Hand
  • A Room Made of Leaves, by Kate Grenville (Canongate UK, Text Publishing Australia)
  • Mr Beethoven, by Paul Griffiths (Henningham Family Press) (I’ve got this on reserve at the library)
  • Afterlives, by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Bloomsbury) — I have previously read his Admiring Silence.
  • A Treacherous Country, by K L Kruimink (Allen & Unwin Australia), see my review
  • The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate), see my review
  • Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell (Headline), on my TBR
  • Islands of Mercy, by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus), see my review
  • The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams (Affirm Press Australia, Chatto & Windus UK), see my review

What’s interesting about this is that all these authors, as far as I can tell, are from the UK or from Australia.  The prize is open to titles from the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth, but with the exception of Gurnah (born in Zanzibar but resident in the UK) none of the exciting historical fiction emerging from African countries is on the list, and (unless my quick Google search for the authors is faulty) there’s nothing from Ireland, Canada, India, or New Zealand, or any of the other Commonwealth countries.  I’m pleased Australians have done so well, and I’m also pleased that our small indie publishers are well-represented, and I am confident that the ones I’ve read are very good books…but… I have an uncomfortable feeling about this list.  Anyone else have any thoughts about this?


Responses

  1. This is a terrific longlist, some really good books here. I’m so pleased to see The Tolstoy Estate listed. I expected Hamnet to be there, a deserved place, but no surprise. I really need to get to The Dictionary of Lost Words!

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    • LOL I keep saying the same thing about Hamnet. I must be the only person in the universe that hasn’t read it yet…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Lisa, I haven’t read them all, but for me the winner is The Mirror and the Light. I love Mantel’s writing and this trilogy.

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    • I did too, and yet, I keep catching myself thinking, oh, she’s won the Booker twice, let someone else win it,
      Which is daft, because a book prize is meant to be for the best book however we judge it, and shouldn’t have anything to do with who’s won it before or not.

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  3. This list is always pretty white, Lisa, perhaps because the historical fiction genre has long been the domain of white writers. I suspect this will begin to change when book industry people wake up to the fact black writers can write historical fiction too. (The 2021 judging panel is all white… and everyone seems to be over the age of 50… which I’m sure has an impact on what sort of books are longlisted). All that said, I was happy to see all the Australians on the list … we could claim a 5th because Two Roads Books is headed up by Lisa Highton, a friend of mine, who has dual citizenship with Australia.

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    • Ah, I didn’t know that about Two Roads Books… what a good name for a publisher BTW.
      I do like that most of them have moved on from the same old terrain of BritHist 16-19th century, and the settings are much farther afield. Hinton is set in Japan (and seems to be a genre-bender as well); The Tolstoy Estate is (of course) set in USSR Russia, The Year without Summer is set in Indonesia, Mr Beethoven in the US, Islands of Mercy is partly set in Borneo, and AfterLives in East Africa. (I should have said in my post that Gurzak was born in Zanzibar though he’s lived in the UK for years and I’ll correct that now).
      So it is a livelier list than it looks at first glance, but yes, they need to get on board with the movement towards greater diversity.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Obviously, I’m thrilled that Hamnet is on this list, and I hope it wins! (But it probably won’t.)

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    • Why do you think it won’t? Do you think something else is likely to win it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • The competition looks very stiff. I don’t think they’ll give it again to Mantel but there are others on the list that will give Maggie a run for her money!

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        • Well, certainly the ones I’ve read are very good indeed.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I was thinking the same thing… It looks like a good list, but the range of representation seems to be lacking. On the other hand, maybe these are just the best books!

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    • It just ‘looks’ odd. Maybe it’s because we are getting used to seeing something different.
      It’s like when I *sigh* accompany The Spouse to certain functions where everyone is older than us. It feels peculiar to be in a room full of people who all look the same, because it’s just not how everyday life is.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting that you’ve noted how many of the authors come from the UK and Australia. I wonder if that’s representative of the publishing industry’s choices this year, too, in that they’ve seen their competitors succeeding with certain titles and were eager to follow suit.

    An interesting contribution to the historical fiction category here, in recent years, was Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda; he identifies as Irish, Scottish, Nipmuc and Ojibwe, and that volume undertook to portray events of the 17thC in the land currently called Canada, an account of both everyday life and violent skirmishes between cultures and between bands. It does seem hard to find historical novels of the saga-sort that are not penned by the “conquerors”.

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    • I like to think that this prize has emerged to take account of the fact that historical fiction is changing. It’s moved on from the costumed world of Jean Plaidy and Margaret Mitchell, fossicking around in the world of a recognisable past. The best of it now is unpacking difficult issues from the past that haven’t been canvassed before and it’s being written by entirely different voices.
      My perception of this sea change comes from reading this article by Fred Khumalo (https://johannesburgreviewofbooks.com/2018/05/07/historical-fiction-is-back-with-a-fire-in-its-belly-fred-khumalo-reflects-on-how-writing-can-be-a-powerful-tool-for-an-activist/) and from reading books by the kind of authors he’s talking about. I created a sub category of ‘historical fiction’ for books which I’ve called ‘hidden history’ and I define it loosely as historical fiction which reveals, for example, or the history of colonised places as seen by the colonised, or derived from oral history passed on by generations of disempowered people. The Orenda fits into this category. Women’s history that’s been excluded from the usual narratives can also belong, but they’re starting to sound much the same as each other IMO, especially those Wife-of-Somebody-Famous stories.
      Despite the fact that I liked the Wolf Hall trilogy, I think that these longlisted books set outside the overworked terrain of British history are a step forward, but I have a feeling that we are missing others. It may be a marketing problem…

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