SO, did the judges of the Walter Scott Prize for the year’s best historical novel prize get it right?
Last Saturday, Borders Book Festival director Alistair Moffat revealed that the judges picked Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side because its “drive and sustained power” edged it ahead of the other five novels shortlisted for the £25,000 prize.
he judges also praised its lightness of touch and skills of characterisation. But were they right?
Not according to the Historical Novelists Society. The prize, they argue on their website (historicalnovelsociety.org) is too literary. A prize named after Scott should, they suggest, be for outstanding commercial historical fiction or for outstanding historical adventure and romance.
They have a point of sorts, even though there’s a whiff of sour grapes about it. But then they (or at least Richard Lee, who wrote a knockabout piece on why five of the shortlisted six shouldn’t have won) spoiled it with a stupid argument.
Barry should not have won, Lee argues, because “while the Irish have plenty to complain about you could argue that the the 20th century wasn’t a walk in the park for many nations. In the ‘victim’ stakes, you are always going to be up against the Jews, the Russians, the Chinese etc’”.
This is an absurd critique on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin. Even if – and it’s a huge, wildly absurd “if” – a book can be judged on those lines (and not on literary merit or an ability to revivify the past), it misses the point about Barry’s fiction entirely.
What Sebastian Barry is doing is to make one part of Ireland realise the humanity of another side. The pro-British Irish, those who volunteered to fight for this country in two world wars, have always been badly treated. There are historical reasons for this, although that doesn’t excuse injustice – as the Irish themselves realised last week when finally apologising for punishing those Irish soldiers who fought fascism in a British uniform as “deserters”.
These are the kind of people who figure largely in Barry’s novels and plays. To Irish republicans they are traitors. They were not, Barry says. They were human beings caught out by history’s twists of fate.
That’s not a reason to give him a prize for historical fiction, but such a prize should also reward writers who make their readers look anew at their past. And On Caanan’s Side – a worthy winner – certainly does that.
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