Sebastian Barry’s Irish history tale lifts Walter Scott Prize
IRISH writer Sebastian Barry was yesterday announced as the winner of the world’s biggest prize for historical fiction – even though the novel begins and ends as recently as 20 years ago.
He was presented with the £25,000 award for the Walter Scott Prize, open to all literary historical novels set more than 60 years ago, at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose.
Festival director Alistair Moffat explained that although Barry’s novel, On Canaan’s Side, is narrated in the 1990s by an 89-year-old Irishwoman, Lilly Bere, the overwhelming majority of its scenes were set in the first half of the century.
“When this prize was set up,” he said, “we knew the dividing line for what constitutes a historical novel had to be set somewhere, so we took as our guide the sub-title for Walter Scott’s Waverley - ‘Tis Sixty Years Hence’.
“Although we knew from the start that Sebastian’s wonderful novel is set in the 1990s the novel then plunges straight back to Dublin before the First World War and brilliantly examines the lives of characters who are trapped on the wrong side of Irish history.”
The judging panel said there was “little more than a whisker” between On Canaan’s Side and the other five shortlisted novels. “But it was its drive, and its sustained power that persuaded us to award the prize to Sebastian Barry. A work of immense power, the book is muscular and complete, and the author wears his learning lightly. Every character is fully drawn and utterly memorable.”
Barry said: “I’m uncharacteristically speechless. I really was not expecting to win – just look at the other authors on the shortlist. My first encounter with Walter Scott was unlocking a trunk in my grandfather’s attic which contained the Waverley novels. I felt as if I was excavating a tomb. I think that is an appropriate way to encounter a writer – as if you were literally retrieving him from the damp and history of your grandfather’s life.”
Barry praised the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, distant relatives of Scott, for setting up the prize three years ago and which is in the top five richest UK literary prizes,
His novel was shortlisted for the prize alongside The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, author of the 2004 Man Booker Prize winner The Line of Beauty, and Pure by Andrew Miller, who won the Costa Book Award last year.
Other entries included The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan and The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth.
In On Canaan’s Side, Lilly is the daughter of Thomas Dunne, whose investiture as chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police she witnesses as a young girl (see panel).
Dunne is the patriarch of the real-life family, relatives of Barry, whose lives he has mined in a series of ground-breaking and award-winning plays and novels.
In 2008, he won the Costa Book Award and the Edinburgh-based James Tait Black award for his novel The Secret Scripture, which fictionalises the life of another Dunne relative, who had lived for nearly all of her life in a Sligo asylum.
His Walter Scott winner tells the story of Dunne’s daughter Lilly, and like so much of the rest of his work, opens up a different, revisionist and more forgiving interpretation of Irish history. It shows how so many people, like Lilly herself, found themselves on the wrong side of Irish republicanism just by staying true to their family and loved ones.
Last week, revisiting the conflict, the Irish government finally apologised for blacklisting the 4,500 soldiers who left its army to fight the Nazis. All blacklisted soldiers were accused of desertion and banned from getting a job in the Irish public service.
Drawing on his family’s stories, Barry’s novels and plays have done more than anyone else’s to reconcile the historical conflicts between Britain and Ireland – a reconciliation symbolised in the Queen’s visit to Ireland in May last year.
Meeting her afterwards, Barry thanked the Queen for visiting the Dublin Garden of Remembrance to Irish republicans as well as the city’s memorial to Irish soldiers killed fighting for Britain.
An extract from On Canaan’s Side
My father smoothed out the sash on my dress with his big cold hand and went down behind me and hunkered down, first tugging at the top of his trouser legs to prevent creases and stretching... and with just the right amount of care and the right amount of speed, tied my bow.
‘There,’ he said. ‘No king’s child could be better kitted out, and no king better pleased with his daughter.’
Then he took me in his arms, myself a little silken girl, and squeezed me so that just for a moment the small cage of my chest was without breath, and glad I was to be breathless, and he put his large moist mouth to my cheek and kissed me with enormous precision. I did not need to be told what the delicate tip of an elephant’s trunk felt like as it ate its stale loaves in the Dublin zoo, because I was sure and certain it felt like my father’s mouth.
Extract courtesy of Faber
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