If I Gave the Award

With The Vanishing Futurist, I have now finished reading all the shortlisted books for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. So, it is time for my feature where I decide whether I think the judges got it right.

Sometimes, it’s easy for me to decide which book I thought was best. In this case, though, it’s pretty difficult as almost all the entries are really good. With the Walter Scott Prize, however, I think one aspect that should be looked at is how well the novel evoked the time and place, and that sometimes helps with my decision.

Let’s start with the winner, Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. I enjoyed this book, about two gay soldiers during the Civil War and the Indian Wars. I remember hearing criticism about the cross-dressing angle, which some readers thought wouldn’t be accepted back then. But I could buy this in communities that were solely male. My problem with the novel was that none of the characters seem fully developed, even though I liked them.

The weakest entry for that year, I thought, was The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain. Set in postwar Switzerland and about a boy and his friendship with a Jewish violinist, it felt to me as if it was holding a pane of glass between me and the characters. Also, this novel seems pointless until the very end.

All the other books do more with the time and place than The Gustav Sonata, but perhaps, although I liked it very much, Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift does less by virtue of the type of book it is. Even though this book, about how the events of one afternoon define the course of one young girl’s life, was one of my favorites, I’m not going to pick it just for that reason. It is a very short novel, and as such doesn’t have as much of the flavor of time and place, but it is an excellent book, extremely well written.

The Good People by Hannah Kent is based on a true crime and explores the deep superstition in a 19th century Irish village that leads to tragedy. This novel does a very good job of evoking time and place as well as building a sense of dread.

Similarly, The Vanishing Futurist evokes the heady times of idealistic young people after the Russian revolution as well as the dangers. Although the aims of the scientist in this novel may seem to be absurd, I don’t think they were an exaggeration of the types of things the Soviets were working on at the time. I felt it does a better job of depicting the time and place than several other novels about the aftermath of the revolution that I’ve read lately.

Notice I haven’t used the word “but” about either of the last two books, which is why my decision is so tough. These are both really enjoyable novels that handle their time and place well. And there is one more, Golden Hill by Frances Spufford. It is set in 18th century New York and evokes a city with mercantile origins and interests that still bears the influence of its Dutch founding. As far as plot is concerned, it is the most ambitious, about a young man who arrives there with a secret agenda. It is humorous and has a picaresque adventure story, so I decided to pick it, but nearly made this decision a three-way tie.

Review 1554: The Vanishing Futurist

Right before the start of World War I, Gerty Freely goes to Moscow to be a governess for the Kobelev family. There she falls in love with one of Pasha Kobelev’s friends, Nikita Slavkin, a brilliant, idealistic scientist and revolutionary. Although Gerty is not political, she eagerly embraces the life of a communard in a commune Slavkin founds in the Kobelev’s house after the revolution. With them are Pasha and his sister Sonya and a few other young people.

Slavkin’s mission becomes to invent a machine that will change people’s cellular structure making them perfect Communists. Eventually, he comes to believe that he can make a machine that will transport a person into another dimension where perfect Communism is possible. Certainly, it doesn’t seem possible in the present one.

Hobson’s novel skillfully depicts the idealist euphoria and immense creativity of the early days of the Russian revolution as well as the hardships, the inevitable disintegration of communal life, and the craziness of those days as the revolution begins to turn in on itself. It makes really interesting reading and seems to much more authentically depict the time than any of the recent novels I’ve read about it.

I read this book for my Walter Scott Prize project and really enjoyed it.

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If I Gave the Award

Now that I have reviewed Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, the last of the shortlist for the 2018 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, it’s time for my feature where I explore whether the judges got it right. The winner for that year was The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, so I think I’ll start with that one.

Myers’ novel was based on true events, charting the course of a group of 18th century coin clippers and counterfeiters who organize their remote Yorkshire valley around this activity. This novel is lyrically written and atmospheric, but I didn’t like its brutality or its faint favoritism toward the criminals.

It is much more evocative of its period, though, than Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, a disappointing novel by one of my favorite authors. Also a tale featuring gangsters, I didn’t feel that it very effectively evoked the time and place of the New York naval yards during World War II.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is Rachel Malik’s touching exploration of the mysterious life of her grandmother that is also set during and after World War II. I found it much more evocative in its setting on remote British farms but maybe a little slight compared to some of the other novels.

A certainly atmospheric novel that was cold and creepy was The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath. Poor Joan Grice is just mourning the loss of her husband when she makes a horrifying discovery about him. This novel is set just after World War II.

I liked Sugar Money by Jane Harris a lot. I especially liked its sprightly narration by Lucien, a 13-year-old slave who is sent with his brother on a dangerous mission. I felt it was much more realistic than many other novels I have read lately about the evils of slavery.

At times when I am doing this feature, I realize that I don’t like very many of the books. In this case, I really liked four of them, so my choice is simply based on which one I liked most. That one is Grace by Paul Lynch, about a young girl who must fend for herself during the Irish famine. It’s a harrowing story, told in beautiful, mesmerizing prose.

 

Review 1538: Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

Rachel Malik’s investigation into the life of her grandmother has resulted in a gentle and touching story of friendship and love. It is an unusual one, too.

Rene Hargreaves leaves her difficult marriage to sign on as a land girl during World War II. She is assigned to work on a remote farm named Starlight owned by Elsie Boston. Elsie is a little peculiar and uncomfortable with strangers, but the two form a close friendship.

When a law is passed allowing the agricultural board to take charge of poorly run farms, Elsie’s greedy neighbors on the board use it to cheat her out of her farm, even after the examiner rates it “fair.” As a result, Elsie must leave the farm. Rene goes with her, and they become itinerant workers.

A promise Rene made to an old friend puts their lives in peril when Elsie is nearing old age and Rene is middle aged. Rene promised Bertha she would take care of her in old age, but it is Bertha who dies, leaving her difficult and senile husband Ernest with no place to go, so the two women take him in.

Although the two women live unremarkable lives for most of the novel, something about their story is compelling. Ultimately, it takes a turn I didn’t expect at all, despite its opening. I read this novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1482: Grace

In the midst of the Irish famine, Grace’s mother awakens her in the middle of the night and hacks off her hair. She tells her she must go out as a boy to get money for the family. Besides, Boggs, who lets the family stay in their house in exchange for sex with her mother, has been eyeing Grace lately. So, Grace is cast out to fend for herself, wandering through a country thronged with starving people, a country that’s becoming more and more desolate.

From the first words of this novel, you know you are reading something different. The prose is beautiful, mesmerizing, occasionally hallucinogenic, as Grace goes through one experience after another, haunted by the people she loses along the way.

What an experience it was to read this book. I read it for my Walter Scott project. It’s a book I probably wouldn’t have come across except for that, and I’m grateful to have read it.

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Review 1473: A Long Way from Home

A Long Way from Home is almost like two different novels, starting out as a light-hearted romp and finishing with the Australian treatment of its indigenous inhabitants. It is set in 1954 Australia, all over it.

Irene Bobs and her husband Titch are tiny people with a great will to succeed, but they are hampered by the activities of Dangerous Dan Bobs, Titch’s father, who seems to be working against them. When Titch, who is the best car salesman in Southeastern Australia, wants to open his own Ford dealership, Dan prevents it using his influence with his cronies at Ford. Having opened a junk yard, Dan continually drops off expensive objects at Titch’s and then charges him for them.

Irene always vigorously supports Titch against Dan, so when Dan scuppers the Ford dealership, she has already arranged something with GMC. Then, the two get the idea to compete with one of their cars in the Redex Reliability Trial, a grueling test of a car’s endurance on horrendous roads all around Australia. Irene and Titch will be drivers, and their neighbor, Willie Bachhuber, will navigate. Of course, Dan decides to compete against them.

Willie is a recently fired schoolteacher. He is also a competitor on a quiz show and a fugitive, who left his wife after she had a black baby and is wanted for child support. His quiz show work, after a long run, ends when his infatuation with his competitor interferes with his thought processes. He is a great reader of maps, however.

The novel starts out bright and energetic, with vibrant and quirky first-person narration by Irene alternated with that of Willie. It takes a darker turn, though, after an accident with Dan. Soon, Willie is separated from his companions in far Western Australia.

I was really taken with this book, especially at its zippy and vivacious start. I liked the characters, and I thought the ending covers important history about aboriginal abuse. However, these comments don’t convey how the novel zips along in its own quirky way.

I read this book for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1465: Sugar Money

Best of Ten!
In 1765 Martinique, Father Cléophas sends two of the monks’ slaves, Emile and Lucien, on an astoundingly ill-advised mission to Grenada. The two brothers are to gather the monks’ hospital and field slaves from the island, which has been taken by the British, and bring them to Martinique. Cléophas presents them with a notarized document and tries to convince them that the British have agreed to this, but in the next breath, he tells them to do it secretly, on Christmas Day, when the British will be drunk.

Emile, who is 28, tries to convince Cléophas to leave Lucien, who is 13, home, but Cléophas insists that Lucien go, because he can speak English. Then he gives them a package of medicinal herbs to convey to a doctor, their excuse for going to the island.

The slaves have no choice but to do as they are bidden. Lucien relates this story in his quirky mix of English, French, and patois. In the guise of an adventure, with humor and a likable, inimitable narrator, Jane Harris tells us the horrifying details of life in the 18th century Caribbean.

This is an excellent novel that I read for my Walter Scott Prize project. I have recently read more than one novel set on a Caribbean sugar plantation, but this one seems the most authentic.

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Review 1426: The Wardrobe Mistress

In post-World War II London during a cold winter, the famous actor Charlie Grice, called Gricey, has died. His widow, Joan, a wardrobe mistress, is bereft. When a young actor, Daniel Francis, takes over Gricey’s role as Malvolio and plays it exactly the same, Joan comes to believe that he has become Gricey.

As Joan is beginning to befriend Daniel Francis, or Frank Stone, his real name, she makes a horrible discovery about Gricey. Behind the lapel of one of his coats she finds a badge, the emblem of Britain’s fascist party. This is doubly horrible because Joan is Jewish. Asking around discreetly, she finds what everyone else knows—Gricey was indeed a fascist.

The stress on Joan becomes even worse as her friend Frank begins working with her daughter Vera on The Duchess of Malfi. Vera’s husband and his friend Gustl ask her to help them fight the fascists by infiltrating them.

This novel is written from an omniscient viewpoint with a first person plural accompaniment by the ladies of the chorus. This technique lends it a certain ironic tone. It’s a creepy and atmospheric novel that chills to the bone.

I read this novel for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Review 1394: Mothering Sunday

Best of Ten!
It’s a warm day in the spring of 1924, Mothering Sunday, a day when servants are released from their duties to visit their mothers. Jane Fairchild is a young maid in the home of the Nivenses, but she has no mother. She plans to curl up with a good book until she receives a phone call from her long-time lover.

Her lover is Paul Sheringham, the only son left after World War I to a neighborhood family. Although he is to be married in two weeks, he sets up a tryst with Jane in his own home while his parents and the servants are out.

Jane is to revisit these hours spent with her lover for the rest of her life. For something happens that afternoon that changes the course of her life.

This is a remarkable novel. It is very short, but it somehow covers the course of Jane’s entire life while minutely examining one scene, the meeting with her lover. It touches on every action and word, considers them from several sides just as the mind does as it re-examines an event. At the same time, it examines what qualities make a writer and what a writer attempts to do when writing. This is an excellent novel I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for A Place Called WinterAs I just reviewed End Games in Bordeaux, the final shortlisted book for 2016 that I read for my Walter Scott Fiction Prize project, it is time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. Since Simon Mawer’s Tightrope was the winner, I’m guessing anyone that follows my blog will know that I don’t think they did.

The Walter Scott Prize judges have done it again by choosing both a sequel and the fourth in a series for their shortlist. I don’t know what it is with this prize. They seem to love books that don’t stand very well alone. Tightrope is the sequel, about Marian Sutro, an agent during World War II who is considered a perfect choice to continue as an agent during the Cold War. In this book, at least, Sutro is an unknowable quantity, and I also thought she was an adolescent male’s dream of the perfect woman. I also wasn’t thrilled to revisit Mawer’s fascination with the female labia. I will not be willingly reading anymore Mawer.

The fourth book of the series was End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie, which introduced so many unexplained characters and provided so little background in its terse little chunks that I could hardly understand what was going on. And, I think for this prize, another important consideration is how well the book handles the historical background. Is there a real feel for the time and place? I didn’t think so for either book, although both do a good job of portraying the paranoia of their respective times.

Nineteenth century Australia was better portrayed in Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek. This novel was an occasionally harrowing picture of a hapless family, appalled by their rustic surroundings. However, I found its plaintive tone a bit hard to take at times.

I liked A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale better, although it took a long time to get the main character to 19th century Saskatchewan, where it was most interesting. I most liked finding out about the details of early homesteading and the treatment of mental illness.

Cover for Mrs. EngelsWilliam Boyd takes a more global view in his novels. His most recent ones cover large swaths of time and lots of historical events. That includes Sweet Caress, a novel about the life of a woman photographer, beginning in 1908 and ending in 1975. I found this novel so convincing in one way (it might have been the photographs) that I kept googling the main character, thinking this was a work of biographical fiction. She’s fictional, but I was not always sure I was hearing a female voice.

This decision was difficult, because no one book stands out above the others, although I definitely like some more than others. But I finally selected Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea for its lively narrative voice, its humor, and its look into the private lives of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.