I’ve now reviewed all the shortlisted books for the 2021 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, so it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. In this case, I can’t begin with the book I disliked most, because I liked all of them. In fact, that’s the difficulty, to choose between these worthy candidates.
I very recently reviewed The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte, about the German occupation of Tolstoy’s estate during World War II. I enjoyed this novel but didn’t like the letters that skipped ahead of the plot and felt the novel was somehow slight.
I also enjoyed The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, which explored the ways that gender influenced the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and looked at the women who helped create the dictionary. I found the novel touching and interesting, although a few of the plot points were predictable.
The freshest book in my memory of is A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville. I found this novel about how a woman learns how to work within a difficult marriage and helps found the sheep industry in Australia vivid and deeply interesting. Of course, the husband gets all the credit.
One of my favorite writers is Maggie O’Farrell. Her novel Hamnet is about the death of William Shakespeare’s and Anne Hathaway’s son and its influence on the writing of Hamlet. I found it to be deft and sensitive, although at first I wasn’t comfortable with how much O’Farrell was making up about Hathaway.
But speaking of favorite authors, along with many people, I was waiting for the last entry in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. That book, The Mirror and the Light, follows Cromwell’s life as he serves Henry VIII and tries to keep him from his worst excesses. It begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn and of course, ends with his own death. It had me in tears, which is my best gauge of how much I enjoy a book. This novel was the winner of the award for 2021, and I think the judges got it right.