Fiction » Historical Fiction

The Best Historical Fiction: The 2020 Walter Scott Prize Shortlist

recommended by Katharine Grant

The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey

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The Narrow Land
by Christine Dwyer Hickey

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Historical fiction is experiencing something of a golden age at present: there's never been a better time to immerse oneself in the past. The acclaimed novelist Katharine Grant—chair of the judges for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction—talks us through their 2020 shortlist.

Interview by Cal Flyn

The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey

WINNER

The Narrow Land
by Christine Dwyer Hickey

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You’re the chair of the judging panel for the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for the best work of historical fiction over the past year. Has it been a good year?

It’s so heartening that most years are good for historical fiction! Of course in some years, with the publication of a much-anticipated book, historical fiction hits the public consciousness big time, but each year throws up treasures. The 2020 Walter Scott Prize shortlist is another cracker.

What are you looking for, when whittling submissions down to a shortlist?

Well, as you’d expect, we have a set of criteria: originality, innovation, durability and quality of writing. But the boost given to historical fiction by the Walter Scott Prize means that these days we’re also looking for the literary challenge authors have set themselves: ambition, if you like. Over the past 11 years, Walter Scott Prize authors have been very ambitious, with spectacular results.

Yes, last year Robin Robertson took the prize with his masterful The Long Take, which combined verse and prose. The first book on the shortlist for the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction is The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey. The novel is a portrait of the unusually intense relationship between the artist Edward Hopper and his wife Josephine—a significant artist in her own right. Could you tell us a little more about The Narrow Land, and why the judging panel admire it so much?

Intimate books are very tricky to write. I think it’s the balance between narrative impetus and quiet observation that often fails. Not here. The Narrow Land is a triumph of intimacy, an immersive experience, illuminating through different perspectives and revealing through layers. The book is all-absorbing as only a picture can be all-absorbing. You witness events, some small, some larger, from varying angles and through differing lights and shades, and all the way through, though the technique is invisible, the effect intense.

Barbara Novak, a friend of the couple in real life, once described their relationship as a folie à deux—does that come out in the book? How close, do you think, does the fiction tread to the truth, and does it matter? 

Certainly, the complexities of the Hoppers’ relationship are explored in The Narrow Land—most dextrously, how these complexities bleed into Edward and Jo’s relationships with their Cape Cod neighbours, and particularly with the two boys, Michael and Richie.

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Turning to truth, I think evidence-based truth—who, what, when, where—is for the biographer. The novelist works mainly with ‘why’, an elusive truth even if you’re writing about yourself. Does the truth matter? Yes. But a novel is more painting than photograph. It’s truth re-imagined. After you’ve read The Narrow Land, take a look at Hopper’s ‘Cape Cod Morning’ and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

I love that. Next on the 2020 shortlist we have a debut work of historical fiction—a great doorstopper of a book, at that. This is The Parisian by Isabella Hammad. It’s set during the decline of the Ottoman Empire, in the years before the Second World War. Why have you shortlisted it?

Ambition, bravery, freshness—The Parisian, a first novel, has all three in spades. It’s a rare talent that can take on the complications and shifting identities of early 20th-century Middle Eastern politics and keep the reader charmed. But through her hero, Midhat Kamal, Isabella Hammad does that and more. It takes a remarkable eye for detail and ear for dialogue to succeed in both broad panorama and delicate miniature. As for the latter, the scene in which Midhat observes his future bride through the keyhole is a particular favourite. Wonderfully done.

This book in particular must be the product of a huge amount of research. As an acclaimed historical novelist yourself, you’re in a good place to comment on this—how does one avoid weighing down a work of historical fiction with facts and detail? Do you ever feel a need to show your sources?

Every historical novel requires huge research, and research is part fun, part pitfall. How you long to slot in some fascinating—to you—discovery, even if it moves the novel onwards not at all. Surely, surely the reader will forgive? The reader doesn’t. All research self-indulgences must be stamped on. Kill your darlings, as journalists say, but don’t always do. But it’s horses for courses.

“If the reader remembers the historical context but not the characters, something has gone wrong”

All our shortlisted authors use their research according to the needs of their novel. So, for example, we need more context in Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian and Marguerite Poland’s A Sin of Omission than for the other four books. When context is needed, the skill is not to let it drown the story. If the reader remembers the historical context but not the characters, something has gone wrong. As you’d expect, in the view of the judges, the Walter Scott Prize shortlisted books don’t fall into that trap.

I was pleased to see the Scottish writer James Meek on the shortlist for the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. This is his tenth book, I believe: To Calais, In Ordinary Time. Set in the 14th century, as the Black Death stalks the land, this seems a timely book. Why do you like it?

Contemporary resonances are always a plus in historical novels. But, quite apart from timeliness, James Meek has quite simply given us something technically ambitious and glorious to read. I found myself smiling and occasionally doing that strange British thing of shaking my head in admiration. It’s punchy stuff!

For some readers, the language may be challenging, so I wouldn’t start reading To Calais in bed. Instead, sit, and once comfortably immersed in the novel, lean back and stretch out. Open wine. Perhaps light a candle. Keep a handkerchief handy.

Why do you say ‘challenging’?

I suppose because To Calais isn’t written in the neutral English employed by most modern historical novelists—i.e. mainly current grammatical constructions, except in direct speech, with words from the time that are easily translatable, for example ‘chamber’ for room or ‘coney’ for rabbit. Digging into the Oxford English Dictionary, James Meek has fashioned a language both familiar and unfamiliar, in other words a language that without losing subtlety or nuance sounds ‘fourteenth century’. But readers shouldn’t be alarmed. Two pages in and you’re fluent.

Got it. Next we have Shadowplay by Joseph O’Conner. It’s another account of a real-life relationship, this time between Bram Stoker of Dracula fame, and the actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. What caught the judges’ eyes?

A better question might be: what didn’t catch the judges’ eyes? Shadowplay employs both first and third person narrative, uses diary pages, private notes, newspaper cuttings and, occasionally, Ellen Terry’s voice. Yet it’s so smooth. Never a hiccup.

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Also, though the novel’s ostensibly about three titans of the Victorian theatre, it’s really a deep exploration of the exposed and the hidden, “the other man that every man contains.” Joseph O’Connor wants us to shiver, and we do. As for the writing, every page has an eye-catcher, often more than one. I could hardly read the book in public, so strong was the urge to accost complete strangers with ‘Just listen to this!’ Could there be a more perfect vignette than Ellen Terry clip-clopping home after a show, alone in the dawn? I can still hear the “alleluia of the linnets.”

As with the Hickey novel, I’m intrigued by the choice to fictionalise reality. What does historical fiction offer that, say, a collective biography wouldn’t?

A collective biography can only go so far in relationship exploration. So, for example, a collective biography of Bram, Henry and Ellen—after Shadowplay, I feel on first-name terms—would focus more on time and place of meetings, on correspondence, on what is irrefutable. A novelist is free to fill the emotional gaps (and other gaps, too, if there are any), without being accused of speculation. So biographers and novelists do different jobs. I’ve never tried to flip from one to the other, but I imagine that’s pretty hard.

The fifth work of historical fiction on the 2020 shortlist is Tim Pears’ The Redeemed. Please, tell us about it.

The plot of The Redeemed concerns the reuniting, or not, of the star-crossed, would-be lovers Leo Sercombe and Lottie Prideaux. The book opens in 1916 with Leo, now a boy-seaman on the battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary—shortly to be plunged into the Battle of Jutland—and Lottie at home in quiet Devon, following the local vet and absorbing the knowledge that will, eventually, lead to her training as a vet. Their paths are not smooth.

“We witness the birth of something new, and the birth isn’t an easy one”

But plot is the least of it. In The Redeemed we, like Leo and Lottie, move from what we might call the ‘prelapsarian’ world—the established, hierarchical world measured in horse-speed—towards the noisier, speedier world of the motor, with class barriers broken, or at least breached. Through their experiences, we witness the birth of something new, and the birth isn’t an easy one. Many critics describe Tim Pears’ prose as ‘lyrical’. It is, but there’s steel in the lyricism. Pears shies away from nothing. Too wise to go technicolour, he instead deploys meticulous detail to intensify emotional heft. Reading The Redeemed is like watching a master craftsman at work.

It’s the final book in Pears’ West Country Trilogy. Does it function as a standalone novel, too, or would I be better to start with The Horseman?

All authors of trilogies would prefer that you started with book one, so do start the West Country Trilogy with The Horseman, then turn to The Wanderers, and then come to The Redeemed. But to qualify for the Walter Scott Prize, a book must stand alone. So if you were to read only The Redeemed, you would find a book complete in itself.

That brings us to our final book on the shortlist for the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction: A Sin of Omission by the celebrated South African writer Marguerite Poland. What did you enjoy about it?

There’s no getting away from it: the story of Stephen (Malusi) Mzamane is difficult. Found starving in the South African scrub, he and his brother Mzamo are adopted by the Anglican missionary establishment and trained for the missionary life themselves. Blighted hopes and wrenching loyalties follow as both, in different ways, are ensnared in and betrayed by prejudices hard-wired into the Anglican church of the late eighteenth century.

In the hands of a careless writer, A Sin of Omission might have been an impossible read, but Marguerite Poland’s restraint, whilst not sparing us, beckons us on. We trust her, and when you trust an author, you enjoy being absorbed into the world being offered, whatever the delights or otherwise of that world itself. And so, though sorrowing for Stephen, we can enjoy Unity Wills, a woman called to be a soldier of Christ yet only a “Sunday worshipper in her best bonnet”; Mfundisi Turvey, who has learned Xhosa “and not only in the imperative”; and most of all, enjoy being swept from the Donsa bush to Shropshire, from Grahamstown to Canterbury in prose that rings like a bell—subtle, bold, unafraid.

Finally: what draws you to historical fiction, generally? What can stories set in the past offer us in the present?

I personally was drawn to historical fiction because in my family, history was always more ‘story’ than ‘history’. Not much difference was made between ‘then’ and ‘now’. But there is a difference between then and now. I find it fascinating, for example, that during this Covid-19 outbreak, boredom is as prevalent as fear. Was it the same during the plague? I don’t think so. And then today, dying is deemed the worst thing that can happen to you, even though until perhaps the nineteenth century, the worst thing was to die unshriven.

Yet at the same time, stories set in the past offer that essential commodity, hope, history by definition being an account of things that have come and gone. An excellent time, then, to turn to historical fiction. But if you’re fed up of being exhorted to read, here’s something just to ponder: 200 years from now, how will the story of the 2020 pandemic be told? Would we recognise ourselves, or would we be saying, ‘You think that’s how it was? Well, let me tell you . . .’

Interview by Cal Flyn

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Katharine Grant

Katharine Grant is a British novelist and has been a judge for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction since 2017. Her novel Blood Red Horse was a Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth and a USBBY-CBC Outstanding International Book for 2006. The sequel, Green Jasper was shortlisted for a 2006 Royal Mail Scottish Children’s book award. She has ten novels published to date. Sedition, her first novel for adults, was longlisted for the 2014 Desmond Elliott prize.

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Katharine Grant

Katharine Grant is a British novelist and has been a judge for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction since 2017. Her novel Blood Red Horse was a Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth and a USBBY-CBC Outstanding International Book for 2006. The sequel, Green Jasper was shortlisted for a 2006 Royal Mail Scottish Children’s book award. She has ten novels published to date. Sedition, her first novel for adults, was longlisted for the 2014 Desmond Elliott prize.