In this alternative Walter Scott Prize award ceremony – the real one happens later today – the first round of applause goes to this year’s judges, who chose a shortlist of 4 impressive historical novels. A second round of applause to the organisers of the Walter Scott Prize for the series of shortlistee interviews which can be found on their Youtube channel.

I really enjoyed my time reading this list, during which I travelled back to multiple eras and locations and learnt many things I didn’t know. But a great historical novel should also resonate with the present. All 4 shortlisted novels do just that:

  • The divisions of reformation Scotland in Rose Nicolson reflect the divisions of the current to-be-not-to-be independent Scotland.
  • News of The Dead asks multiple questions about the nature of storytelling and makes me ponder on the truth (or otherwise) of the stories we are being told in our times.
  • Fortune is very informative about risks on oilfields (the same now as they were then) and highlights the environmental impact, raising the question, is it worth it?
  • The Magician outs the human behind the myth of one of Germany’s greatest writers, Thomas Mann. How many of today’s legends would fall from their pedestals, if the ugly – though-not-that-ugly in Mann’s case I hasten to add – truth were to come out?

I recommend them all and will have no complaint whichever novel lifts the official prize. However, in my capacity of self-appointed shadow judge, I cannot hedge my bets, and must make a decision.

It is said that that the ultimate winner of any literary prize tells you more about the judges than about the novel. So now, this judging panel of one shall reveal herself. Tóibín’s novel with its subject being the author my favourite novel of all time, Buddenbrooks, was always the one to beat. In addition The Magician has started me on a reading trail I am loving. (Cf Reviews of Books 1 and 2), and added a few more must-sees in both Lübeck and Munich, cities I adore. There were none of the pacing issues – i.e pages which disinterested me – that were present in the other 3 novels, some more than others. And yet, one of them has pipped Tóibín to the post …

I’m taking nothing away from Tóibín’s masterful fictionalisation of his subject – all that imagined dialogue with six kids to contend with – but the facts of Thomas Mann’s life are well-documented. Much less is known about Will Fowler, the protagonist of my winning novel, which gives it an advantage when thinking about historical fiction needing to write into the gaps. Add in Robert Louis Stevenson’s influence who, according to Andrew Greig said “a proper book must have adventure, skullduggery and a love story”. To which I can only say “Bravo!” Apart from a slight lull in proceedings when Fowler leaves St. Andrew’s University, that intoxicating and entertaining mix is present on almost every page of Greig’s self-styled C16th “campus novel with added knives and crossbows”. Besides the trophy must surely belong to the novel featuring its own Walter Scott, ancestor of the world famous author, in whose name this prize is awarded. And so my shadow trophy goes to Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson.