Having finally reviewed the last book on the shortlist for the 2011 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, it is time to write this recurring feature, where I give my opinion about which book I feel deserved the award.
This was a year with several entries that were unusual and one that I felt was not actually a very good novel. Let’s start with that one, To Kill a Tsar by Andrew Williams. This novel about a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander II was presented wrapped around an unlikely and uninteresting love story. I was never sure whether I was supposed to feel sympathy for the plotters or not. I didn’t.
The winner for that year was The Long Song by Andrea Levy. Although this is an interesting novel about the last days of slavery in Jamaica, I felt it was somewhat distancing from its characters. However, this sad story is told with humor and lightness.
Heartstone by C. J. Sansome is an entry in his Matthew Shardlake series set in Tudor England. Although this series is outstanding for its thorough immersion in the Tudor world, this novel was impeded in its effectiveness, I thought, by the subplot involving Ellen Fettiplace.
C by Thomas McCarthy is an unusual story of the life of a young man, set in the early 20th century and ending during World War I. Again, this novel, which wanders about among many different pursuits of its main character, was interesting but seemed detached from its subject, as was I.
One of the most beautifully written entries for that year is Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor. This is the story of the poet John Millington Synge and Molly Allgood. Characterization is more important in this novel than the historical setting, which I think is vital for a novel considered for an award for historical fiction.
That leaves one of my favorite books of all time, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. This novel is set in 18th century Nagasaki, Japan, during the first opening of Japan to the West. Jacob de Zoet becomes one of the first Europeans to be allowed to set foot off the island called Dejima where all the Europeans are restricted to live. This novel was full of the flavor and customs of 18th century Japan as well as a good story about corruption in the Dutch East India Company.
Although several of the books on this year’s list are worthy of the award, my personal choice is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.