The shortlist of Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction is the only shortlist I’m willing to read in its entirety. The problem is the books are not always published in the UK, and that sometimes prevents me from doing it. This year being a case in point. Steven Conte’s The Tolstoy Estate was the most exciting title on the longlist, the one I rushed to look up. BUT it’s not available here, and the last time I imported a longlistee from Australia, I ended up not liking it much. So I restrained myself, promising myself a copy if it won. It didn’t, so pennies saved, and that might have been the course of wisdom given my reaction to the two other Australian novels on the shortlist.
Kate Grenville’s A Room Full of Leaves is the only novel on this year’s shortlist that I reviewed in full. It was very enjoyable, but ultimately failed to convince. I dnf’ed Pip Williams’s The Dictionary of Lost Words on page 111. I was bored.
Which leaves us with a two horse race: Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light. I semi-reviewed Hamnet here and, of the two, it is the novel I enjoyed the most. The chapter of the plague travelling to England still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. BUT O’Farrell commits a cardinal sin. I disliked the maligning of John Shakespeare’s character, especially as there is no evidence for it, and the man cannot defend himself. I heard O’Farrell has since said she regrets doing this.
Which brings me to Mantel’s magnum opus, and the actual 2021 winner. The Mirror and The Light is a novel I listened to during those one-hour walks that were de rigeuer during the first lockdown. At x1.5 speed because it was dragging so. My first impression was that it was self-indulgent, there was no need to continually go over old ground. (This is from a Mantel fan – Wolf Hall is my favourite Walter Scott prizewinner.) I’ve since heard Mantel discuss her novel three times without repeating herself. Her point about creating a standalone novel about memory within Cromwell’s reevaluation of his past has convinced me that I really must reevaluate my own assessment! (Though when I will find time for a (re-)read, heaven only knows.) Of the four shortlistees I have encountered, I can see how The Mirror and The Light would reveal/reflect more with each reading and thus rise in the judges’ estimation each time.
So I’ll concur with the judges, and also award this one-woman shadow jury prize to The Mirror and The Light.
(I confess, though, The Tolstoy Estate is still calling to me, and I might yet import a copy …)