I have no idea, but let me tell you of my hopes.
It’s testament to the quality of contemporary historical fiction (if that is not a contradiction in terms) that this year’s Walter Scott shortlist consists of 7 titles, not the usual 6. So as the judges were having problems at the shortlist stage, how are they going to determine the winner? Because there’s no easily separating the five I’ve read. Deliberations could go something like this:
Sebastian Barry’s already won once, and Days Without End is a much better novel, so he deserves to win it again!
Rose Tremain’s historical novels have won every other prize going. It’s about time she won this one. Let’s declare The Gustav Sonata the winner!
It’s a travesty that Hannah Kent’s first novel wasn’t even shortlisted. Let’s make up for that now by declaring The Good People the winner!
There’s nothing more powerful that showing the impact of historical events through the microcosm of an individual’s experience. Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree is our winner.
Our previous winners contain huge amounts of misery and political intrigue. Let’s have a laugh for a change. The prize goes to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill!
I obviously can’t advance any arguments (tongue-in-cheek or otherwise) for The Vanishing Futurist and Mothering Sunday, except that the former is in my TBR and the latter is not.
For me, it is a question of which novel is capable of stealing the prize from Sebastian Barry, whose novel has already beaten Francis Spufford to the Costa Novel of the Year Award, and contains awe-inspiring passages of intense luminosity. And yet my doubts as to historical authenticity linger. The same is true of Spufford’s Golden Hill, which also contains improbable plot twists, but what can you expect from a novel that is primarily a brilliant homage to the 18th-century picaresque novel? And yet it provides a detailed and spiritual portrait of New York, when it was just a small town.
I suspect either Barry or Spufford – if the judges decide to go for the highly original choice – will take the prize, but, having just finished The Good People, I’m willing Hannah Kent to win. In short, her reimagining of the events leading up to the tragic death of 4-year old Michael Kelliher in the pre-famine rural Ireland of 1826 is everything I want my historical fiction to be. I need a full interpretation of how things came to be within the context of prevailing societal norms, taboos, beliefs and superstitions. Kent excels at writing into the gaps of history here – court records tell what happened, not why the two women accused of murdering the child acted as they did. I was fascinated by the effective and the non-effective herbal remedies at the heart of this novel, and by the conflict between Christianity and pagan folklore. (And I railed at both from time to time.) The cadence and lilt of Kent’s prose – at times just as lyrical as Barry’s – held me in that time and place. I forgot my own surroundings. I could feel the cold, hear the fires crackling, empathise with the despair, even as I refused to condone the behaviour. And I watched as first an individual woman, then an entire town lost their rational minds. With only hints as to true nature of Michael Kelliher’s condition, The Good People was puzzling, terrifying, emotional amd utterly absorbing. It well deserves the accolade I hope it will receive tonight.
P.S Even if the judges don’t agree with me on this, they must surely grant that the UK hardback is the most beautiful on the shortlist. From the embossed golden leaf on the cover to the swoonsworthy deckled edges, ’tis an absolute joy to behold and read.