The 2015 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction shortlist
Tuesday night saw the announcement of the 2015 Walter Scott Prize shortlist, and the evening was a showcase for the kind of glamour and charm that the genre enjoys. A party held in impeccable Mayfair rooms, where once Byron and Scott began their friendship; canapés inspired by George IV’s 1822 visit to Edinburgh; lavish amounts of champagne, and a number of faces you would recognize from the television. Charm, yes. Warmth, most certainly – it was a noticeably inclusive occasion, where all guests were welcomed at the door by our hosts and patrons, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch. But there is an iron fist in the velvet glove of historical fiction – a fist that can more than punch its weight. The Duke spoke forcefully of Sir Walter Scott’s unrivalled and unprecedented worldwide impact on the early form of the novel. The chairman of the panel of judges, introducing the 2015 shortlist, then admirably made the case that historical fiction today is as edgy and global and free of conventional straitjackets as Scott himself would have wished.
So what can the modern genre of historical fiction offer to readers? Five years is enough to get some bearings on a prize. The winning authors to date have been in nationality English (2), Irish, Malaysian and Anglo-Jamaican. Subjects have been the political struggles in England and France, the aftermath of war in Ireland and Japan, and the effects of post-colonial dislocation. In other words the genre is eclectic. Certainly it is no slim genre of royalty and costume. If the five years of shortlisted books are also included, what they begin to offer is a truly worldwide take on history.
This year's seven shortlisted titles continue in this rich vein. They demonstrate a broad range of global settings from colonial India to 14th century China, Europe during the two world wars, and 17th century England. Though some of the authors are household names, others are as yet relatively obscure, and there is one debut novel (Hermione Eyre’s intense and experimental Viper Wine). And none of the books has yet won any other prize, which is interesting in itself. For the first year, I think, The Walter Scott Prize has stepped out of the shadow of the longer established literary awards.
For lovers of historical fiction, this is exceptionally exciting. As Hilary Mantel, the prize’s inaugural winner said, the historical novel has had ‘mixed fortunes’. ‘It has been deeply unrespectable. But a genre doesn’t need respectability so much as it needs vitality.’
Read this year's shortlist, and the past shortlists, and you are ensured of vitality in abundance.
The full shortlist:
The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis
The Lie by Helen Dunmore
Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre
In the Wolf's Mouth by Adam Foulds
Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut
A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie
The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling
With our thanks to Richard Lee. Find out more about the Historical Novel Society.