2017 Walter Scott Prize Shortlist

Following last month’s revelation of the 2017 longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, the shortlist has been announced today. As you probably know by now, I am currently working my way through all of the shortlisted titles for this prize since it began in 2010 (you can see my progress here). There are seven books on this year’s list and for once I’m off to a good start as I’ve already read three of them!

Here are the seven:

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

***

Of the three books that I’ve read, I loved Golden Hill and The Good People, and although I wasn’t a fan of Days Without End, Sebastian Barry’s writing is beautiful and I would say it has a good chance of winning. Of the four that I haven’t read, I already have a copy of The Gustav Sonata which I’m hoping to read soon, but I don’t know anything about the others. Have you read any of them? What do you think of this year’s shortlist?

The winner will be announced in June!

Under the Hog by Patrick Carleton

I had been looking forward to reading this book since I first became interested in the Wars of the Roses and decided I wanted to read as much as I could on the subject. First published in 1937, Under the Hog gets good reviews and appears on several lists of recommendations of novels set in this period, so when I settled down to read it I expected something special – and luckily, I wasn’t disappointed.

Under the Hog is a fictional account of the life of Richard III, but along the way we also enter the minds of the other notable men and women of the period, get amongst the action on the battlefield, witness private conferences and murders carried out in secret, and are offered a surprising solution to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to give a synopsis of the plot here, as it does follow the course of real history very closely – and I’ve already written about this period many times before in previous reviews – so instead I’ll just make some general observations about the novel itself.

The approach Patrick Carleton takes is quite unusual. Rather than writing from the perspective of one character or even a few, he writes from many different viewpoints, switching from character to character as the story requires. These include Thomas Wrangwysh, the Mayor of York; the diplomat Philippe Commynes; the scholar Dr Warkworth; Richard III’s close friend Francis Lovell; Margaret of Burgundy, sister of Richard and Edward IV; and Ralph Miller, a young soldier at the Battle of Barnet. So many different voices and personalities, each one coming forward to tell their own part of the story, however big or small, before retreating into the background, in some cases never to be heard from again.

Richard himself is seen mainly through the eyes of other people. It’s only really his wife, Anne Neville, who sees the warm, sensitive man behind the rather grim and austere exterior. Carleton’s portrayal of Richard is largely sympathetic – not a saint, but a human being who sometimes makes mistakes like the rest of us, ruthless when necessary but not needlessly cruel. I appreciated the fact that Carleton takes the time to show us some of the good things Richard achieved during his reign, which are often overlooked, such as his reforms to law and justice. The only thing I didn’t like was his persistence in drawing attention to Richard’s height – or lack of it. When Richard’s skeleton was discovered in Leicester in 2012, it was found that he suffered from scoliosis which would probably have affected his height, but Carleton’s constant descriptions of him as being unusually tiny still seemed a bit strange. He also has Richard continually biting his lip and playing with the rings on his fingers – presumably inspired by the way he has been pictured in his portraits – but again, it was a bit distracting!

The other characters, including the minor ones, are generally very well written. I particularly loved the portrayal of the spiteful, petulant but strangely tragic George of Clarence (I liked the way Carleton tackles the legend of George being drowned in a butt of malmsey) – and of Anthony Woodville, brother of Edward IV’s queen, quietly scheming to keep control of the power his family wield in England. It’s Anthony who, in one of the most memorable scenes in the book, comes up with the idea of murdering the deposed Henry VI in the Tower of London, which I think might be the first time I’ve seen him blamed for that particular incident.

I loved this book, but I don’t think I would necessarily recommend it as a first introduction to Richard III and the Wars of the Roses. The reader is very much dropped straight into the action and it is assumed that you will have at least some background knowledge; names are given their less familiar old-fashioned spellings – Tydder and Wydvylle for Tudor and Woodville – and there are passages of untranslated French. This is probably one to enjoy after you’ve already gained a bit of familiarity with the period.

If I hadn’t known that this was a book from the 1930s I would probably have assumed it was a lot more recent than that, as it has aged very well. It is witty, unromantic and written with a mixture of darkness and lightness. Although it unfortunately seems to be out of print at the moment, if you share my interest in this fascinating period of history, you could do a lot worse than to find yourself a copy of Under the Hog.

The Muse by Jessie Burton

This is Jessie Burton’s second novel, following her very successful debut, The Miniaturist. I had one or two problems with The Miniaturist and didn’t fall in love with it the way so many other people seemed to, but I did like it enough to be interested in reading more of her work.

The Muse is split between two different time periods. In 1967, we meet Odelle Bastien, a twenty-six-year-old woman from Trinidad who is looking for work in London. As she settles into her new job as a typist at the Skelton Institute, a prestigious art gallery, Odelle strikes up an unusual friendship with her employer, the glamorous and secretive Marjorie Quick, who encourages her to follow her ambition of becoming a writer. At a party one night Odelle is introduced to Lawrie Scott, who shows her a painting he has inherited from his mother. A few days later he brings it to the Skelton where it causes a great deal of excitement; it seems that Lawrie’s painting could be a lost masterpiece.

To discover the origins of the painting, we have to go back to Spain in 1936 where Austrian art dealer Harold Schloss and his English wife, Sarah, are living in a rented finca – a country house – in a village near Malaga. The couple’s daughter, nineteen-year-old Olive, has ambitions of her own but is keeping her talents hidden knowing that they wouldn’t be appreciated by her father. When local painter and political activist Isaac Robles and his sister Teresa come into her life, Olive has some big decisions to make; this could finally be her chance to follow her dreams.

What is the truth behind the painting once owned by Lawrie Scott’s mother? What really happened to the artist Isaac Robles, whose final fate is unknown? And is Marjorie Quick really who she claims to be? Like The Miniaturist, The Muse has an element of mystery, but unlike the previous book, it is grounded entirely in reality with no hints of the supernatural. I thought the writing style felt quite different too, especially as this one is written in the past tense instead of the present tense of The Miniaturist. In fact, I would almost go so far as to say that they could have been written by two different authors, which is not necessarily a bad thing as it’s good to see authors trying something new.

I found both threads of the novel interesting to read. In the 1960s, Odelle gives us some insights into what it’s like to be an immigrant from the Caribbean living in Britain and what it’s like to be black in a predominantly white community. However, I couldn’t help thinking that Odelle herself feels almost superfluous to the story; it’s Lawrie who owns the painting and Marjorie Quick who is connected in some way with the events of 1930s Spain. Usually in this type of novel, the modern day (or relatively modern, in the case of this book) narrator has some kind of personal link with the historical characters, but Odelle doesn’t, which seemed a bit strange to me.

The 1930s storyline is where most of the real action takes place. With Spain on the brink of civil war at that time, Spanish politics form a large part of the story – not just as a backdrop, but with a real significance to the lives of the Schloss and Robles families. A lot of care has obviously gone into creating the Spanish setting – the descriptions feel detailed and vivid – but again, my problem was with the characters. None of them came fully to life for me and I struggled to understand their motives and the decisions they made.

Although there were some aspects of the novel I liked – such as the mystery surrounding Marjorie Quick and the exploration of the struggles faced by women in the worlds of art and literature in years gone by – I think of Jessie Burton’s two novels I probably preferred The Miniaturist.

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

It’s been a few years since I read Margaret George’s Elizabeth I – still the only one of her novels I’ve read – but I’ve always intended to read more and the publication of The Confessions of Young Nero, the first of two volumes on the life of the Roman Emperor, seemed a good opportunity. Until recently, this particular book wouldn’t have appealed to me (Ancient Rome has never been a favourite historical period of mine) but tastes changes and, having read the wonderful Cicero trilogy by Robert Harris, I now feel more enthusiastic about the subject.

The Confessions of Young Nero is a fictional account of the early years of Nero – or Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, to give him the name by which he was known as a child. Narrated in his own words, Nero begins by taking us through the events of his childhood, starting with one of his earliest memories: the time his uncle, the Emperor Caligula, tried to drown him. This is the young Nero’s first experience of the ruthless plotting and scheming which surrounds those close to the imperial family; it is never far from his thoughts as he grows older and, following the deaths of first Caligula and then his successor Claudius, becomes emperor himself.

Although, as I’ve mentioned, most of the story is narrated by Nero, there are several much shorter sections scattered throughout the book narrated by two other characters: Locusta, a poisoner whose skills are very much in demand, and Acte, the former slave who becomes Nero’s lover. This was one of the least successful aspects of the book, in my opinion. I really don’t think those sections added anything to the story and I’m not sure why those two characters in particular were chosen, as there were plenty of others who had just as much significance in Nero’s life.

Nero himself is portrayed much more sympathetically than I’d expected. Admittedly I don’t know a huge amount about him, but from the little I had previously read I had formed a very different impression of Nero than the one given by this novel. I can see from Margaret George’s author’s note that she has deliberately taken a revisionist approach to Nero’s story, believing that he has been unfairly treated by history and that some of the accounts we rely on for information about him were written to discredit him. I can accept this (it reminds me of the way Tudor propaganda was intended to discredit Richard III) but I personally found this version of Nero far too nice! Nothing was ever really his fault and on occasions where he did commit a wicked act, it was because he had been driven to it and left with no choice. I think a more complex, morally ambiguous character would have been of more appeal to me.

I did like the characterisation of the main female characters in the novel, particularly Messalina, Agrippina and Poppaea, three ambitious women each of whom wields power in her own way. Something which comes across very strongly throughout the novel – and especially when one of these women is involved – is the continuous sense of danger and the way in which anyone of importance in the Roman Empire had to be constantly on their guard against an attempt on their life.

Having such limited knowledge of Ancient Rome, I found the complicated family relationships difficult to follow at first, but I think Margaret George does an excellent job of clarifying them for readers like myself and by the time I was a few chapters into the book I was starting to get Nero’s family tree clear in my mind. As this is quite a long novel and only tells the first half of Nero’s story, it allows plenty of time to explore the major personal and political incidents which take place during this stage of Nero’s life; some of this was familiar to me, but much of it was new and I found it all fascinating. While important events such as Boudicca’s revolt are described in detail, Margaret George also devotes many pages to discussing Nero’s love of music, poetry and sport. I can appreciate how much research must have gone into the writing of this novel!

I’m pleased that I’ve read this book as I think I’ve learned a lot from it – and despite having some negative feelings about it as well as positive ones, I do want to read the rest of the story and will be looking out for the sequel. Meanwhile, I’ve been reminded that I have Margaret George’s novel on Mary, Queen of Scots on my TBR – I’m looking forward to it as that’s a period of history I’m much more comfortable with!

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

One day in 1945, Catherine Goggin, sixteen and unmarried, is banished from her small village in West Cork, Ireland, for committing the sin of becoming pregnant. Shamed by the priest in front of an entire congregation and cast out by her family, Catherine makes her way to Dublin in the hope of starting a new life for herself. When her baby boy, Cyril, is born several months later, she makes the decision to put him up for adoption – and from this point, Catherine steps into the background of our story. Our attention switches now to Cyril, growing up in the home of his adoptive parents, Charles and Maude Avery.

Charles is a rich but disreputable businessman with a weakness for gambling and womanising, while Maude is a temperamental, chain-smoking novelist who hates the thought of anyone actually buying one of her books. Unsurprisingly, they do not make good parents and never let Cyril forget that he is “not a real Avery”. The one bright spot in Cyril’s life is his friendship with Julian Woodbead, the son of Charles Avery’s lawyer. Julian is popular, sophisticated and daring; everything Cyril wants to be. As the boys grow older, however, and enter their teenage years, Cyril becomes aware that what he feels for Julian is not just friendship but love.

Narrated by Cyril himself, the story is divided into sections moving forward seven years at a time, taking us from the 1940s right through to 2015 and around the world from Dublin to Amsterdam to New York. Along the way we meet a range of characters who, while they may not be very realistic, are so vividly drawn they almost jump out of the page; I particularly loved the hilarious Mary-Margaret Muffet, Cyril’s first girlfriend, who has “very high standards” and who proudly announces to everyone she meets that she knows all about the world because she works on the “foreign exchange desk at the Bank of Ireland, College Green”. We also witness, through Cyril’s eyes, some of the most significant historical events to occur in his lifetime, including the bombing of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin, the impact of AIDS in the 1980s, the 9/11 attacks and Ireland’s referendum on gay marriage.

The main focus of Cyril’s story, however, is on his sexuality and how he comes to terms with it. As a young man growing up in Catholic Ireland, he quickly discovers that it is not at all easy to be homosexual in a society where people don’t even want to acknowledge that such a thing exists; his attempt to confess to a priest has shocking consequences! And so, for a long time, Cyril tries to deny his feelings even to himself (hence Mary-Margaret and one or two other women). Eventually he can suppress his love for Julian no longer…but things don’t go exactly according to plan.

Actually, things never do seem to go according to plan for Cyril and it would be difficult not to feel some sympathy! Sometimes it’s his own fault, as he does make a lot of mistakes and bad decisions, but he is also a victim of prejudice, intolerance and lack of understanding. With the novel jumping forward in seven-year chunks, we see not only how Cyril’s personal circumstances have changed in the intervening time, but also how attitudes towards homosexuality have changed – subtly at first, but quite dramatically by 2015. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that sometimes the messages Boyne was trying to get across came at the expense of the story.

Having read and enjoyed several of John Boyne’s novels over the last few years, I was really looking forward to reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies and although A History of Loneliness is still my favourite, I did find a lot to like about this one – his longest and most ambitious book yet. I should probably warn you that the humour is often very dark and sometimes not in very good taste, which won’t be for everyone, and that as Cyril’s sexuality forms such an important part of the story, it’s also quite explicit at times. I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be my sort of book or not at first, but after an uncertain start I found myself being drawn into Cyril’s story and then there was no question of not finishing it!

Following Cyril Avery’s life from birth to old age was a memorable experience! He’s a wonderful character…so complex and so human. Although the plot is built around a series of highly unlikely coincidences, I didn’t mind too much as it meant everything fell into place at the end. Not all of the characters get a happy ending, but some of them do and I was left with the hope that the younger generations of Cyril’s family would find certain aspects of their lives easier to deal with than poor Cyril did!

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

It’s 1746 and Richard Smith has just arrived in New York bearing a bill of credit for one thousand pounds. Presenting this to be cashed at the counting-house of the merchant Lovell on Golden Hill Street, the mysterious Smith causes quite a sensation. Who is he and where has he come from? Where is Lovell supposed to find such a huge amount of money? And what does Smith intend to do with it once he has it?

I would like to tell you more about the plot of Golden Hill, but I’m limited as to how much I can say without spoiling things for future readers. I think it’s enough to say that it’s a hugely entertaining story involving duels, card games, imprisonments and a chase across the rooftops of New York. One of the things which makes this book such an enjoyable and compelling read, however, is the air of mystery surrounding Richard Smith from beginning to (almost) end.

“There’s the lovely power of being a stranger,” Smith went on, as pleasant as before. “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’ve a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be. But the bill, sir, is a true one. How may I set your mind at rest?”

His refusal to explain what he is doing in New York and why he needs so much money keeps the other characters – and the reader – guessing until the final pages. Is he really as rich as he seems to be or is he involved in some sort of hoax? Should Lovell trust him or will he be made to look a fool?

Smith’s secretive behaviour arouses both fascination and suspicion among the people he meets. Although he says very little about himself and his past, there is evidence that he has been well educated, travelled extensively in Europe, has a good knowledge of the theatre and an aptitude for dancing, acting and magic tricks – and yet he also makes a number of mistakes and blunders that suggest he may not be as sophisticated as he seems. To complicate things further, Smith soon falls in love with Lovell’s daughter, Tabitha, a character I found just as enigmatic as Smith himself. With her prickly exterior, sharp tongue and often spiteful behaviour, it’s difficult to know how Tabitha really feels about Smith, which is something else to ponder while you read.

Francis Spufford’s writing style is wonderful and perfectly suited to the story and the period; it’s clearly intended to read like an authentic 18th century novel and a lot of care has obviously gone into the choice of words and the way sentences are structured. Sometimes the narrator breaks into the story to speak directly to the reader, passing judgement on the actions of the characters, expressing annoyance (at having to explain the rules of the card game piquet, for example), and making amusing asides and observations. This is the sort of thing I tend to enjoy, although I know not everyone does! The narrative style is not just for show, though – there’s another reason why Spufford has chosen to tell the story in this way, although I didn’t understand until I reached the very end of the book.

Another highlight of the novel is its portrayal of New York at a time when, far from being the major city it is today, it’s a relatively small community still with a significant Dutch influence (seen in the design of the merchants’ houses and the names of the surrounding villages and neighbourhoods – Bouwerij for Bowery and Breuckelen for Brooklyn, for example). It’s a city in its early stages of development, just beginning to expand and prosper, and brought to life through Spufford’s vivid descriptions.

There’s so much to love about this unusual, imaginative novel. I had never heard of Francis Spufford before reading this book, but it seems that although he has written several non-fiction books, Golden Hill is his first novel. Naturally I am hoping that he’ll write more!

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (re-read)

Since I started blogging in 2009 (which seems so long ago now) I have discovered lots of great books, have tried genres I had never thought about trying before, and have been introduced to some wonderful new authors. One thing that has been sadly neglected, though, is re-reads of my old favourites – something that used to form such an important part of my reading life. Making more time for re-reads has been a goal of mine for the last few years, but I have never actually done it; I’m determined that 2017 will be different! I have re-reads of Rebecca and The Count of Monte Cristo coming up soon for the Classics Club, both of which I’m looking forward to, but before I get to those two, I’ve been revisiting a book I first fell in love with as a thirteen-year-old: Emily Brontë’s 1847 classic, Wuthering Heights.

For those of you who have not yet had the unforgettable experience (in one way or another) of reading Wuthering Heights, here is a quick summary. The novel opens in 1801 with Mr Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange in Yorkshire, paying a visit to nearby Wuthering Heights to meet his landlord, Heathcliff. Lockwood is hoping for some peace and quiet in which to enjoy his stay at the Grange and at first he is happy with what he sees in Heathcliff. It’s not long, however, before he discovers that what he had mistaken for quiet reserve hides a cruel and violent nature. After passing an uncomfortable night at Wuthering Heights, in which he is treated with hostility by the inhabitants and tormented by strange dreams, Lockwood retreats to the safety of his own lodgings, where he begs his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, to tell him what she knows of Heathcliff and his household.

Most of the novel is narrated by Nelly Dean, as she relates the story of Heathcliff’s first arrival at Wuthering Heights, a child brought back from Liverpool by old Mr Earnshaw, and raised alongside Earnshaw’s own children, Catherine and Hindley. As the years go by, the childhood friendship between Heathcliff and Catherine begins to develop into something more, but when Edgar Linton from Thrushcross Grange enters Catherine’s life, Heathcliff finds himself pushed aside. He devotes the rest of his life to causing misery for the Lintons – as well as taking revenge on Hindley who, unlike his sister, had never accepted Heathcliff as one of the family.

It seems that a lot of people who dislike Wuthering Heights approached it for the first time expecting a romantic love story and in that case I can understand why they would be disappointed. The relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy is hardly a conventional romance and although there is love, it is an obsessive and unhealthy love. When I first came to this book as a young teenager, though, I had no idea what it was about and no expectations whatsoever, so none of that bothered me. At that age, I loved it for the darkness, the melodrama and the passion. The blurb on the back of my old Penguin copy (not the one pictured above) describes Wuthering Heights as “perhaps the most passionately original work in the English language” and I think I would agree with that. Who could forget the moment Catherine declares her love for Heathcliff:

“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”

Another reason people have for not liking Wuthering Heights is the unpleasant, unsympathetic characters. Well, I can’t argue with that. They are certainly unpleasant – not just Heathcliff and Cathy, but most of the supporting characters too, from Nelly herself, who puts the child Heathcliff “on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone on the morrow”, to the elderly servant, Joseph, “the wearisomest self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses to his neighbours”. And although I’ve always had a soft spot for Hareton Earnshaw, Hindley’s son, I struggle to find any sympathy for any of the others. But again, not liking the characters has never been a problem for me where this particular book is concerned.

This is not the first time I’ve re-read Wuthering Heights but it is the first time for quite a few years. I was worried that I would feel differently about it, but I’m pleased to say that I still loved it. I did find different things to notice and appreciate this time – with more knowledge of Emily Brontë herself than I had during previous reads, I could think about the ways in which she may have drawn on her own life for inspiration in writing her novel (the descriptions of Hindley’s drunken behaviour, for example, were surely influenced by Emily’s experiences with her brother Branwell). I also found myself constantly noting down favourite passages and phrases, such as the wonderful description of Cathy’s relationship with the Lintons as “not the thorn bending to the honeysuckles, but the honeysuckles embracing the thorn”.

I thoroughly enjoyed my re-read and am looking forward to re-reading more old favourites during the rest of the year.

What do you think of Wuthering Heights? Do you love it or hate it?