If I Gave the Award

Having reviewed the last book from the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction shortlist, it’s now time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. Frankly, 2020 was an odd year, with several books that, while interesting, really didn’t do it for me. In fact, quite a few of them cultivated distance between the reader and the work.

As I often do, I’ll start with the books I liked least. One is The Parisian by Isabella Hammad. This novel covers the beginning of the fight for Arab nationalism and the First World War, so it should have been interesting. However, Hammad writes it from the point of view of a man who distances himself from the action by the persona he invents for himself.

Another distancing book was The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, which was the winner for 2020. It is about the relationship between the artist Edward Hopper and his wife Jo. It is slow moving and mostly a character study about a self-absorbed man who seemed to live his life in the interior of his own mind. I felt that although Jo was depicted as jealous and demanding, she was upset about something understandable—her career coming so much secondary to his and in fact his disdain of her work.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek is a little more experimental than the other nominees. It is about a 14th century journey from the Cotswolds to Calais, and it is written only in words in use at the time. It also reflects, in tone and plot, its medieval inspirations. However, Meek doesn’t do much with his characters, so I had difficulty becoming involved in the novel.

The Redeemed by Tim Pears was the third book in his West Country Trilogy, and it is set during the last years and the aftermath of World War I about a man who has to make his own way after becoming homeless as a boy. Having spent three books with these characters, I found the conclusion of the trilogy anti-climactic. I actually thought the first book was best.

Joseph O’Connor has written a novel about 30 years in the life of Bram Stoker, with Shadowplay. I found this novel involving and interesting. It’s about Stoker’s work with the Lyceum Theatre and his relationship with two famous actors, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. It even has just a bit of a supernatural influence.

Although it took me a while to get into A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland, I found it absolutely heart-rending by the end. It is based on the life of a native Anglican missionary to South Africa, about a man whose upbringing sets him apart from his own people as well as his English white patrons. This novel is my choice for the 2020 award.

6 thoughts on “If I Gave the Award

  1. Helen September 27, 2021 / 1:50 pm

    I still have some of these to read, but the best one I’ve read so far is Shadowplay. I didn’t like To Calais, In Ordinary Time very much at all and I’m not sure if I’m going to continue with the Tim Pears trilogy as I was bored by the first book. Congratulations on finishing the list!

    • whatmeread September 27, 2021 / 3:13 pm

      Oh, dear, will you just not finish the project then or skip to Pears’s last book? I actually don’t think you would miss much by just reading it.

      • Helen September 28, 2021 / 3:54 am

        I’ll probably read the third one at least, but am undecided on the second one.

      • whatmeread September 28, 2021 / 9:50 am

        You probably won’t miss much.

  2. FictionFan September 28, 2021 / 9:58 am

    I’ve only tried two of these and didn’t have much success. I abandoned The Parisian, because I found it both tedious and badly executed. I also abandoned Shadowplay, but for different reasons – I tried the audiobook and really didn’t get on with it in that format, but I still want to read it in paper form one day. I’ll look out for A Sin of Omission…

    • whatmeread September 28, 2021 / 9:59 am

      I hope you can find it. I don’t usually read ebooks, but I had to get it that way.

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