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Courtesy of  www.walterscottprize.co.uk

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.

imageI 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.

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When Hannah Kent was 17, she went to Iceland on exchange for a year. She chose Iceland because she – a native Australian- had never seen snow. She fell in love with the country and she describes her first novel as a dark love letter to its natural landscape. The subject is Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland, and the novel’s timeline covers the months following her conviction to her execution in December 1830.

Agnes’s story exerted a natural pull. She is the Ned Kelly of Australia, said Kent at the Edinburgh Book Festival, in that she elicits strong responses from Icelanders to this day. Historical documents represent her in stereotypical terms. She is always described as monstrous or evil. I wanted to discover the ambiguity, complexity and humanity in her story. At the same time I was aware of being a foreigner. I had to be ethical and stick to the facts. However, there are lots of gaps in these facts and I have attempted to fill them using common sense, logic and informed speculation.

Agnes’s voice is written in a lyrical, metaphorical 1st person narrative, one in which the beauties of the landscape and its slow descent into winter are almost sung. She is given two confessors: a young inexperienced clergyman and the wife of an official designated her watcher. Agnes must be lodged in the family home, because there were no prisons in Iceland at that time. Naturally this causes no amount of consternation and anxiety as there are also two young daughters in the house.

The psychological tensions of having a convicted murderess inside the home are demonstrated matter-of-factly in 3rd person narratives from differing points of view. The interactions of the family and the clergyman with each other and with Agnes also provide a remarkable domestic social study of the early 19th century.

The juxtaposition of the 1st and 3rd person narratives together with the inclusion of bone dry, bureaucratic and entirely unsympathetic official documents of the time as well as some telling Icelandic poetry can be seen as the circling around an historical fact to arrive at the historical truth at the centre. Was Agnes Magnusdottir guilty of cold-blooded murder? Hannah Kent said she didn’t know when she was writing the novel because she was researching simultaneously. This, of course, helped with the pacing of Agnes’s revelations. It also ensured an immersive and absorbing read.

I haven’t read a debut this impressive since Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves.

5stars

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