l Walter Scott Prize 2012: and the winner is… Sebastian Barry

Today was a bizarre sort of June day: torrential downpours, mud, and a drumroll of rain on the marquee roof to welcome the announcement of the 2012 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, founded through the generosity of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch.  There was no question, however, that the atmosphere of expectation made up for any dampness in the air.

Here were six fantastic novelists – in alphabetical order, Sebastian Barry, Patrick deWitt, Esi Edugyan, Alan Hollingsworth, Andrew Miller and Barry Unsworth (of whom Barry, Hollingsworth and Miller were actually present) – writing about an extraordinary range of subjects.  It seemed impossible that the judges would ever manage to choose between them, since they were all remarkable in different ways.  The books have all been reviewed in a series introduced (and concluded) by Richard Lee on the Historical Novels Society website – some quite wonderfully.

Here are the links (in order of appearance):

On Canaan’s Side. The Historical Novel as Paean of Loss (reviewed by Gordon O’Sullivan, Carol McGrath)
Pure. The Historical Novel as ‘time outside time’ (reviewed by Richard Lee, Lucinda Byatt)
The Stranger’s Child. The anti-historic novel (reviewed by Sally Zigmond and Eric Bryd),
Half Blood Blues. Fiddling While Rome burns (reviewed by Debbie Schoeneman and Gregory Baird)
Quality of Mercy (reviewed by Felice and Mij Woodward)
The Sisters Brothers (reviewed by Sandra Gulland and Kristen Hannum)

The award ceremony has been filmed and I’ll post the link as soon as it becomes available, but in the meantime let me add a little of what was said about each book this afternoon.  The chairman of the judges, Alastair Moffat (himself a historian and author of such books as  Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, The Faded Map, and the wonderful Before Scotland) stood up to read the citations on each book, followed by excerpts read by the uniquely versatile actor John Sessions (worth waiting for the recorded version just to hear him!).  Here they are:

Sebastian Barry On Canaan’s Side. “Sebastian Barry wears his learning so lightly. Every characters is fully drawn and every one stays with you. A sustained piece of writing and a work of immense power and lyrical beauty.”

Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers. “The novel is a Wild West road trip that immediately pitches you into the lawless frontier with great aplomb. Tremendous verve and drive. The novel never slackens its focus. A masterly piece of writing.”

Esi Edugyan, Half-blood Blues. “Her use of dialect, like Walter Scott’s, makes the reader work, but it is very effective. The novel has a highly original premise and one that says something new about Nazi Germany. An electric, heart-breaking story about music, race, love and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves and demand of others in the name of art.”

Alan Hollingsworth, The Stranger’s Child. “A unique, stunning original novel. The literary reverberations of the poem “Two Acres” is like a melody that holds the whole novel together. A magnificent scheme, spanning almost the whole of the twentieth century, a picture of an England constantly in flux. A great novel by one of the finest prose writers in the English language at the height of his powers.”

Andrew Miller, Pure. “Every fifty pages I paused to reflect what a stunning story about an extraordinary place this was. A superb metaphor for the fall of the Ancien Regime. Amazingly visual. The stench of this dreadful, suppurating, weeping place was almost real.  A huge achievement.”

Barry Unsworth, The Quality of Mercy.  Barry Unsworth died on 5 June. Alastair Moffat quite simply read the tribute of Allan Massie (a former judge of the Walter Scott Prize) which appeared in The Telegraph.

Then, with the rain thundering on the marquee roof, James Naughtie and the Duke of Buccleuch spoke briefly – the Duke about the prize and the fantastic 12-million pound restoration project underway at Walter Scott’s home, Abbotsford; Naughtie to read a moving note from Hilary Mantel who was very sadly unable to present the prize because of illness.

“My belief”, Mantel wrote, “is that historical fiction is stronger and more popular than ever before. More vital and diverse, more controversial and more challenging. This year’s very strong shortlist demonstrates the dazzling range and variety of the form.”

When the prize announcement was finally read out Sebastian Barry looked genuinely dazed: look at the quality of other writers, he said.  Based on the judges’ views on Alan Hollingsworth’s novel, I had also thought that they were going to nominate The Stranger’s Child, but in the press release they state:

“There was little more than a whisker between On Canaan’s Side and the other five shortlisted novels, but it was its drive, and its sustained power than persuaded us to award the Walter Scott Prize to Sebastian Barry.  A work of immense power, the book is muscular and complete, and the author wears his learning lightly. Every character is fully drawn and utterly memorable. “

Later in the afternoon, Sebastian Barry returned to take part in a panel on historical fiction, with Alan Hollingsworth and Andrew Miller.  He gave a superb, no more, a virtuoso reading/performance of a passage in the book which describes Lilly and Cassie’s ride with Joe on a rollercoaster, high above Cleveland.  The passage consists of one sentence – a sentence that lasts a good page and a bit.  Joe loved a popular song (Little Birdie, Little Birdie), so Barry started by singing to us in a voice that silenced the rain and immediately had us spellbound. Then he began to read ( I’ve just looked up the passage in the book – pages 119-20 if you want to try it.) The words racked up to a crescendo of feverish excitement, before poising to hover at the top and then swoop back to earth in a tumult and outpouring of emotion.  It was truly memorable.

You might ask what the Paps of Jura (and all that blue sky!) have to do with this…. apart from being a natural rollercoaster.  Well, all the shortlisted writers will spend a week at the Writers’ Retreat on Jura – where George Orwell, and many since, also went to write.  Who knows what excellent novels that might inspire?

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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4 Responses to l Walter Scott Prize 2012: and the winner is… Sebastian Barry

  1. Doug says:

    Great post Lucy. Encapsulates a fabulous event brilliantly. Sebastian Barry’s reading from On Canaan’s Side was astonishing – an absolute triumph!

    • Lucy Byatt says:

      It really was – he’s a fantastic writer and person. Did you hear the rest of the panel discussion – I was going to write that up too, but haven’t had time yet!

      • Doug says:

        I did, I thought it was particularly interesting that Allan Hollinghurst seemed a bit bemused to be nominated for a historical fiction award for a book that he’d deliberately kept devoid of history

      • Lucy Byatt says:

        It’s strange how some authors are still ambivalent about the label “historical novelist” – I suppose shades of what James Wood was referring to as a “gimcrack genre”!

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