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.

Review 1728: A Sin of Omission

A Sin of Omission opens with Stephen Mzamane making a long journey to see his best friend, Albert Newnham, across the region known in the 19th century as Kaffraria on the Cape of South Africa. During this journey, the novel looks back on his life.

Picked up as a starving child in the bush by Reverend Basil Rutherford, Stephen is raised at a mission to become an Anglican priest. Once his family learns where he is, his father brings his older son, Mzamo, there too, reasoning that the boys will not succeed unless they learn to be English. The Ngqika tribe has been driven off its lands by the British, and because of a prophecy that foretold the British would leave if the people destroyed their crops and animals, his father has killed his cattle and burned his crops. Although he is an important man, he has to work on the roads to avoid starving.

The Church is making it a practice to raise the sons of important natives as British clerics in an attempt to convert the people. Both Stephen and Mzamo are intended for this program. However, Mzamo is rebellious while Stephen is dedicated and devout, so Mzamo is ejected from the program.

Stephen is eventually sent to Canterbury to be educated at the Missionary College. There, although he is a fish out of water, he becomes best friends with a fellow student, Albert Newnham. Unfortunately for this friendship, Albert eventually chooses to marry a girl who is completely unsuited to be a missionary’s wife and is racist.

Things begin to go wrong after the young men take an ill-considered shortcut so as not to be late for tea, but Stephen only begins to learn the fruits of this event when he returns to Africa. Although he still needs to pass Greek and Latin exams to become a priest, unlike his white fellows, he is given a post far from any libraries or tutors. The job he expected to get working at the missionary college with his beloved Mfundisi Turvey, principal of that college, eventually goes to Albert. Instead of being give a post together, as promised, they are separated. In fact, Stephen is alone because the nearest cleric to his post is racist.

Stephen is also no longer a part of his own people, although his brother plays a large part in his fate. The major events of this novel are initiated when he learns of his brother’s death.

This novel is partially based on the life of Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama, a missionary of the Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity. Although it didn’t initially pull me in, I eventually found it absorbing and heart-rending. This is a novel I probably wouldn’t have discovered had it not been for my Walter Scott project.

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Review 1726: To Calais, In Ordinary Time

It’s 1348, two years after the battle of Crécy, which won Calais back from the French to the English. Will Quate is betrothed to Ness, the prettiest girl in his Cotswold village, but his liege lord, Sir Guy, wants him to join a group of archers on their way to defend Calais. Will would rather stay, but he bargains for a document showing he’s a free man. Sir Guy tells him he will send along the paper with Captain Laurence Haket in exchange for five pounds once he has won his fortune.

Will agrees to go. In fact, his attitude toward Ness seems ambivalent. He doesn’t seem to care that she had an affair with Haket and became pregnant. Will’s friend Hab is plainly in love with him, but Will doesn’t seem inclined.

Sir Guy’s daughter Bernadine is incensed that Sir Guy has betrothed her to a man his own age when she is in love with Laurence Haket. Inspired by La Roman de la Rose, she feels she is entitled to a more romantic life, so she runs away, following Haket on his way to Calais.

Another voice on the journey is Thomas Pitkerro, a proctor, who is sent along with the archers on his way to his home in Avignon to give last rites, if needed. Thomas is afraid of the plague, which is said to be moving north from Italy and France.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time echoes its medieval inspirations with its tale of adventures while on a journey. It does so in more than just plot, however, for it is written with only words in use in the time it was set. Thomas, who is writing letters and keeping a diary, writes in a stiff, bombastic style that thankfully loosens up . The novel is narrated in a style a little less formal than the speech of Bernadine, which contains some French modes of expression. Several times the point is made that her workers do not understand many of the words. The speech of Will and the characters around him is littered with expressions native to the Cotswolds.

This attempt is similar to that of Paul Kingsnorth in The Wake, which I read several years ago—written to be readable to modern audiences but to have the feel of Old English (in the case of The Wake, that is). This effort doesn’t seems as likely to me except in the speech of the characters of the lowest status, which has a flow to it. The dialogue between characters of higher status seems overly elaborate, even pretentious, and perhaps echoes written work of the time.

Meek doesn’t do much to get readers interested in his characters, so at first I had difficulty becoming involved in the novel. After a while, I got more interested. I read this novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1713: The Narrow Land

As a young child, Michael Novak was rescued during World War II and sent to the States as part of a program for orphaned children. There, he was adopted by the Novaks. At 10, he is still extremely fearful and full of routines he follows to calm himself. So, he is resistant when Mrs. Novak tries to put him on a train, the first step in a journey to spend the summer on Cape Cod with the Kaplans. Finally, he decides to go.

On the island in 1950 live the artist Edward Hopper and his wife Jo. Although they tend to be standoffish with the vacationers, Michael forms a friendship of sorts with Jo. And it’s really the relationship between Edward and Jo that this book is about.

Edward has been having a dry spell, and he seems preoccupied with trying to find a woman he painted a few years before. She is right under his nose in the person of Katherine Kaplan, Mrs. Kaplan’s daughter, who is dying of cancer. He has seen her and noted the resemblance, but she is no longer dyeing her hair blond. He is an introvert who spends most of his time in his own head.

Jo is extremely jealous of him and thinks he pays too much attention to Olivia, Mrs. Kaplan’s daughter-in-law, when it is really Olivia paying attention to him. Jo is in fact irrationally and violently angry at times, particularly when she feels she had to abandon her career when she became his wife. Although Jo has some moments of self-awareness, I really think Hickey treats her harshly as a character. Granted, I know nothing about the couple’s life, but Hickey shows her making a fool of herself at a party with her airs and graces and spiteful remarks about other people.

Hopper is not very nice to Jo and belittles her art, although I read about that and found she had some standing as an artist.

This novel, which I read for my Walter Scott project, was slow moving, and for a long time I couldn’t tell whether it was going anywhere. Sometimes that doesn’t bother me, but in this case I had a hard time staying interested. The novel does have a payoff in the end, but it is more character study than plot-based.

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Review 1709: The Redeemed

The third book of Pears’ West Country Trilogy and the book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project, The Redeemed begins in 1916. Leo Sercombe, now about 16, joined the Royal Navy at the beginning of the war as a boy seaman. In a battle, his ship, the Queen Mary, is sunk, and he is one of only 20 crew members rescued.

His father’s former employer’s daughter Lottie begins training as a veterinarian with Mr. Jago. He believes that soon the veterinarian college will be opened to women and she will be the first graduate.

The novel works slowly toward the reunion of its two main characters. There is one incident where this reunion is delayed because of a misunderstanding. It’s the type of plot device used frequently in movies, where the problem could be solved in a few words, and I think using it was a bit lazy.

Although Pears continues with his spare, understated writing style that is so eloquent, I found after a while that his minute descriptions of work, whether it be birthing a foal or floating a sunken ship, were losing my attention. Finally, the long-awaited reunion seemed somewhat anticlimactic. Pears’ style is very detached, maybe too much so. Although I was always interested in what happened to the characters, I probably could have been more so. Of the trilogy, I think the first book was the strongest.

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If I Gave the Award

Now that I’ve finished reading the shortlist for the 2019 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize, it’s time for my feature where I examine whether I think the judges got it right. This time, I’m starting with the book I liked the least.

After the Party by Cressida Connolly is about Fascists in World War II England. I was confused about the message of this novel and found all the characters unsympathetic and some downright disgusting.

Although I did not actively dislike any of the other entrants, I was not that enthralled with the winner of the prize, The Long Take by Robin Robertson. As it was written in poetic form, it is not as accessible as the others, and it is mainly atmospheric. However, it is about an interesting subject and period, homeless ex-soldiers after World War II and the selling out of Los Angeles.

I liked four of the novels about equally well for different reasons. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is essentially an adventure novel about a deserting officer during the Napoleonic Wars. It is about redemption and self-forgiveness.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is also set during World War II, about two teenagers deserted by their parents whose lives turn chaotic and dangerous.

I admired the zippy energy of A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey. It starts out seemingly being an adventure and love story and ends up being about the treatment of Aboriginal people in 1950’s Australia.

I think I’m going with The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey, a Medieval tale about a drowned man that reveals its secrets slowly as it moves backward in time. I liked the structure of the book as well as the atmosphere.

Review 1671: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

In 1809 during the Napoleonic Wars , Captain John Lacroix returns from Spain ill and wounded. As he recovers, something is troubling him, but we don’t know what. Before he has fully recovered, he is summoned back to his regiment, but instead of returning, he sets out on a journey to the Scottish islands.

Back in Spain, a tribunal is being held about the sacking of a Spanish village by British troops. On the word of one man, Corporal Calley, the tribunal finds Captain Lecroix guilty of being the officer in charge of those troops and the man who cut off the hair of an innocent woman. The Colonel then sends Calley to find and kill Lecroix accompanied by a Spanish officer, Lieutenant Medina, to make sure he does it.

As Lacroix unwittingly travels to a small island and becomes involved with the people living there, Calley pursues him, behaving like a deranged animal to the innocent people he thinks may know where Lacroix is. Lacroix certainly has a shameful secret about war, but is it what he is being pursued for?

This novel is atmospheric and deeply engaging. As it nears its conclusion, it is also truly exciting. Although I did wonder how likely it was that the army would have sent an execution squad against one of their officers, the novel is a wonderfully written adventure story that reflects on the nature of war and redemption. I read it for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1655: Warlight

In 1945, Nathaniel and Rachel’s parents enter their young teen children into boarding school and leave for a year in Singapore. Hating school, the two children run away and end up at home in the care of their parents’ friend and boarder, whom they call The Moth.

Their lives become chaotic. Their house is filled with eccentric people. Nathaniel and Rachel grow apart, Rachel going off on her own while Nathaniel skips school to help the mysterious man called The Darter engage in low-level criminal activities.

They never see their father again, and it becomes apparent that their mother is engaged in some sort of espionage, which eventually proves dangerous for them.

This moody novel is intricately plotted, so that its secrets are revealed slowly, like peeling an onion. As Nathaniel becomes a man, he begins to look into the truths behind his formative years. What really went on? What did he know but forget? What was he oblivious to? This novel is dark, enigmatic and deeply engaging. I read it for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1641: The Dictionary of Lost Words

After reading The Professor and the Madman, Pip Williams got interested in the ways that gender affected the original edition of the OED. She wrote The Dictionary of Lost Words to honor the women who helped produce the dictionary.

As a little girl, Esme becomes fascinated with the strips of paper used to keep track of different uses of words. Her father is the assistant to Dr. Murray, who is in charge of the OED project, and she spends a lot of time sitting under her father’s desk at the Scriptorium. One day, she finds the strip for the word “bondwoman” and puts it in her pocket. She begins collecting duplicate strips or words that will not be included in the dictionary and puts them in a trunk.

As a young woman, she begins working in the Scriptorium. She becomes fascinated with the idea that some words are not allowed in the dictionary because they don’t have a written source. Many of these words, she notices, are related to the poor and to women—words for women’s body parts, professions, epithets for women. She begins collecting her own words from Lizzie, the Murray’s maid, and from common people in the market.

link to Netgalley

This novel not only reflects the love of words but also the events of the time—the battle for women’s suffrage and eventually World War I. At first, I had difficulty getting into it, but that may in part have had to do with my problems with eBooks. Eventually, I was sucked in and found the novel touching, even though a few plot points are predictable.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review. I had this review already scheduled for posting when I learned that the book made it to the shortlist for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize.

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Review 1617: The Western Wind

On Shrove Tuesday 1491, Henry Carter awakens the local priest of the village of Oakham, John Reve, to tell him he’s seen a body floating in the river. For four days, Tom Newman has been known to be drowned, but the villagers have not been able to recover the body. When John and Henry return to the river, however, the body is gone.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that Newman’s death was other than an accident or suicide, the dean, who has taken it upon himself to investigate, is convinced that Newman was murdered. His reasoning is that Newman, as the wealthiest, most productive man in town, is unlikely to have committed suicide and that there was no reason for him to be by the broken village bridge so early in the morning unless he was meeting someone. Before the day is out, the dean has selected two possible murderers and is trying to force Reve to pick one, even though Reve believes neither is guilty.

The novel moves backward in time to the day of the drowning, during which time the villagers’ secrets are revealed—John Reve’s among them. The novel is deeply interesting for its view into the thinking and superstitions of the Medieval mind. I read this absorbing novel for my Walter Scott project.

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