Winner of the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Following the revelation of the shortlist for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in March, the winner was announced at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose on Saturday. As some of you will know, I am currently attempting to work my way through all of the shortlisted titles since 2010, so I have a particular interest in following this particular prize.

The seven titles on the 2017 shortlist were:

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

And the winner is…

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry!

This is the second time Sebastian Barry has won this prize (On Canaan’s Side in 2012 was the first). I haven’t yet managed to read all of the titles on this year’s shortlist, but Days Without End is one of the four that I have read and although it wasn’t my personal favourite, I did predict that it would probably win. I think it has a lot of the elements judges look for in a prize winner and, like all of Barry’s novels, it is beautifully written. In the words of the judging panel, “Eventually, Days Without End took the lead, for the glorious and unusual story; the seamlessly interwoven period research; and above all for the unfaltering power and authenticity of the narrative voice, a voice no reader is likely to forget.”

Have you read Days Without End? What did you think of it?

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

days-without-end Sebastian Barry is one of my favourite Irish authors; having enjoyed his last three novels, The Temporary Gentleman, On Canaan’s Side and The Secret Scripture, I began to read his latest one, Days Without End, not really knowing or caring what it was about. I knew I could count on Barry to have produced another beautifully written novel and I was sure that would be enough. Unfortunately, it wasn’t – I still found things to like and to admire, but this just wasn’t my sort of book.

Thomas McNulty and John Cole are “two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world” who meet in Missouri as teenagers while sheltering from the rain together under a hedge. It’s the 1850s and Thomas, having lost his family to the famine in Ireland, has fled to America in search of a better life. John, who was born in New England, is the first friend Thomas has made in his new country and the two quickly become inseparable. The first thing they need to do is find employment and here their youthful good looks prove useful when a saloon owner offers them a job as dancers, on the condition that they dress up in women’s clothes to entertain the local miners.

At seventeen, considering themselves too old to continue their dancing act, Thomas and John leave the saloon and join the US Army. Fighting first in the Indian Wars and later in the Civil War (on the Union side), it’s a difficult life and the two young soldiers face dangers and obstacles ranging from hunger and illness to extreme weather and encounters with Native Americans. Throughout all of this there are two things that sustain them: their love for each other and their relationship with Winona, a young Sioux girl separated from her family during a raid.

Days Without End is narrated by Thomas McNulty and this provides a link with several of Barry’s previous novels which tell the stories of other members of the McNulty family (he has also written several which focus on another Irish family, the Dunnes). Thomas, though, is obviously from an earlier generation of McNultys; the other novels are set in the 20th century, which makes this one feel a bit different. Another difference is that this book is set in the American West rather than Ireland – and I think this is probably why I had a problem. Westerns are not a genre I would usually choose to read (although I did love Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers) and too much of this novel just didn’t interest me at all.

If the setting does sound of interest to you, then I would have no hesitation in recommending this book even though I didn’t particularly enjoy it myself. Sebastian Barry is a very talented writer and there are some beautiful passages in this novel; the poetic narrative voice didn’t always sound very convincing coming from the down-to-earth soldier, Thomas McNulty, but that didn’t really matter – the beautiful, poetic writing was the reason I chose to read this book, after all.

What I did struggle with was reading page after page of descriptions of army life, buffalo shooting expeditions and battles against the Sioux. I don’t think the balance between these aspects of the story and the more personal aspects was quite right and I very nearly gave up on the book halfway through. I kept reading mainly because I wanted to know what would happen to Winona – and I was rewarded with an interesting and dramatic ending to her storyline.

Days Without End has its good points and its bad points, then, and I think my disappointment with it is entirely due to my personal reading tastes. I shouldn’t have assumed that just because I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Sebastian Barry I would love this one too, despite a setting and subject which didn’t appeal to me. I’m still looking forward to going back and exploring his earlier novels; I have a copy of Annie Dunne, which sounds much more like the kind of book I would enjoy, so that’s probably the one I’ll be reading next.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

My Commonplace Book: October 2016

A summary of last month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

~

“Most people only want a quiet life,” I said. “Even those of us who were once radicals.” I smiled wryly at Roger. He nodded in acknowledgement.

“Fanatics on both sides,” old Ryprose said gloomily. “And all we poor ordinary folk in the middle. Sometimes I fear they will bring death to us all.”

Revelation by CJ Sansom (2008)

~

edward-lear-book-of-nonsense

“Books,” the driver resumed. “I’m a great reader. I am. Not poetry. Love stories and murder books. I joined one o’ them” – he heaved a long sigh; with vast effort his mind laboured and brought forth – “circulatin’ libraries”. He brooded darkly. “But I’m sick of it now. I’ve read all that’s any good in it.”

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin (1946)

~

“We shall wait upon tomorrow,” he said.

“But – what if tomorrow is worse than today?”

“Then we shall wait upon the day after tomorrow.”

“And so forth?” I asked.

“And so forth,” Dogger said.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley (2014)

~

In his masterwork, The Landscape of Criminal Investigation, Atticus Pünd had written: ‘One can think of the truth as eine vertiefung – a sort of deep valley which may not be visible from a distance but which will come upon you quite suddenly. There are many ways to arrive there. A line of questioning that turns out to be irrelevant still has the power to bring you nearer to your goal. There are no wasted journeys in the detection of a crime.’

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)

~

“But seriously Poirot, what a hobby! Compare that to -” his voice sank to an appreciative purr – “an easy chair in front of a wood fire in a long low room lined with books – must be a long room – not a square one. Books all round one. A glass of port – and a book open in your hand. Time rolls back as you read.”

The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie (1947)

~

robert-cecil

“Watch and wait,” says Burghley. “You have a valuable nugget of information, but that is all it is at this stage. Watch the lady; watch and wait.” Cecil is reminded of being fleeced by a card trickster once, who had said the very same thing – watch the lady. He lost all the gold buttons from his doublet. That was a lesson learned.

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle (2015)

~

Sometimes I would like to cry. I close my eyes. Why weren’t we designed so that we can close our ears as well? (Perhaps because we would never open them.) Is there some way that I could accelerate my evolution and develop earlids?

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (1995)

~

Why the Egyptian, Arabic, Abyssinian, Choctaw? Well, what tongue does the wind talk? What nationality is a storm? What country do rains come from? What color is lightning? Where does thunder go when it dies?

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)

~

lantern-clock

And as the seconds and minutes moved on, I pondered Man’s efforts at the representation or ‘capture’ of Time, and I thought how, for Clockmakers like Hollers, the very Commodity with which they were trying to work was a heartless and capricious Enemy, who stole from them all the while and never rested.

Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain (2013)

~

A Gothic gate, richly ornamented with fret-work, which opened into the main body of the edifice, but which was now obstructed with brush-wood, remained entire. Above the vast and magnificent portal of this gate arose a window of the same order, whose pointed arches still exhibited fragments of stained glass, once the pride of monkish devotion. La Motte, thinking it possible it might yet shelter some human being, advanced to the gate and lifted a mossy knocker. The hollow sounds rung through the emptiness of the place. After waiting a few minutes, he forced back the gate, which was heavy with iron work, and creaked harshly on its hinges…

The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe (1791)

~

I could not possibly go home, I reflected, and add as a serious contribution to the study of women and fiction that women have less hair on their bodies than men, or that the age of puberty among the South Sea Islanders is nine — or is it ninety? — even the handwriting had become in its distraction indecipherable. It was disgraceful to have nothing more weighty or respectable to show after a whole morning’s work.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

~

sappho

Not everyone can write as legibly as I; Father made me spend hours at my tablets, saying that my poems must be written down by me as I myself have composed them, so they will not be distorted in later years by other singers. “For you have great gifts from the Muses,” he said. “I would not have them lost to the world that comes after.”

Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart (1974)

~

“I ain’t in the habit of picking other folks’ roses without leave,” said she.

As Rebecca spoke she started violently and lost sight of her resentment, for something singular happened. Suddenly the rosebush was agitated violently as if by a gust of wind, yet it was a remarkably still day. Not a leaf of the hydrangea standing on the terrace close to the rose trembled.

“What on earth -” began Rebecca; then she stopped with a gasp at the sight of the other woman’s face. Although a face, it gave somehow the impression of a desperately clutched hand of secrecy.

Small and Spooky edited by M.R. Nelson (2016)

~

Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016)

~

“You don’t think there’ll really be a war, do you?” she asked anxiously, as her work was for the maimed wrecks of men left by the 1914-18 war – and I could understand her horror of another. But when I looked at the Green Cat I was not sure and I did not reply.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (1959)

~

Favourite books read in October: Revelation, The Moving Toyshop and Magpie Murders

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry

The Temporary Gentleman

“It seemed there was more cruelty than joy stored up in the human story, and kindness and comfort only rationed, and the ration book for both indeed not issued to everyone.”

The Temporary Gentleman is the third Sebastian Barry book I’ve read and I was looking forward to it, having loved both The Secret Scripture and On Canaan’s Side. Based on those two novels I knew I could expect a tragic, heartbreaking story and some beautiful, haunting writing – and that’s exactly what I got. Whenever I read a book by Sebastian Barry I am impressed by how much care he gives to each and every sentence, always searching for the perfect word or phrase to use. He can make the most ordinary, mundane things sound poetic and magical.

This is the third, I think, of Barry’s novels to focus on members of the McNulty family. The first, which I haven’t read yet, is The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and the second is The Secret Scripture, which tells the story of Roseanne, Tom McNulty’s wife. This new book, The Temporary Gentleman, is narrated by Jack McNulty, the brother of Tom and Eneas. They are all standalone novels and I don’t think they need to be read in any particular order, but I do like the fact that they are all loosely connected.

As an Irishman whose commission in the British Army during the Second World War is not permanent, Jack McNulty is the ‘temporary gentleman’ of the title. In 1957, sitting in his lodgings in Accra, Ghana where he lives alone with only his houseboy, Tom Quaye, for company, Jack begins to write his memoirs. He remembers his early days in Ireland and his first meetings with his future wife, Mai Kirwan. He reflects on the reasons why their relationship became strained and their marriage began to disintegrate. And he thinks of the mistakes he has made and the terrible impact of alcohol on both his own life and the lives of his family. Occasionally we return to the present where we learn a little bit about the political situation in 1950s Ghana, but the majority of the novel is devoted to Jack and Mai’s troubled marriage.

This is such a sad story, made even sadder by the fact that Jack does truly love Mai and although he can see that he is ruining his life and hers, he can’t stop himself from doing it. He knows he has made bad decisions and that he is to blame for the tragic outcome of those decisions – and yet he seems incapable of trying to put things right. Jack is not the most pleasant of people but even while I felt frustrated and angry with him, it was still possible to feel a bit of sympathy for him at times. I was also intrigued by Mai’s character, particularly because we only see her through Jack’s eyes and never have a chance to hear her point of view. It would have been interesting to have been able to read the same story from Mai’s perspective – I would love to know how she really felt about Jack and his actions.

As usual with a Sebastian Barry novel, I found that I was constantly marking lines and passages that I loved and as usual, if I started to quote them here I would have to quote almost the whole book. But despite the gorgeous writing I didn’t like this book quite as much as The Secret Scripture or On Canaan’s Side, maybe because Jack causes so many of his problems through his own behaviour and I didn’t feel as desperately sorry for him as I did for Roseanne McNulty or Lilly Dunne. I also felt that the Ghana sections of the novel added very little to the story. Still, this book was worth reading for the beauty of the writing alone. While I’m waiting for Sebastian Barry’s next novel I would like to go back and read his other books on the McNulty and Dunne families that I haven’t read yet.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for review.

On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry

“Bill is gone. What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.”

When this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist was announced at the end of July, one of the titles that I was most looking forward to reading was this one, On Canaan’s Side. I read The Secret Scripture last year and fell in love with Sebastian Barry’s beautiful, poetic writing style. There are some similarities between The Secret Scripture and On Canaan’s Side, the most obvious one being the idea of an old woman looking back on her life, but the stories are different enough to make this book a good read too.

On Canaan’s Side is narrated by Lilly, a retired cook. At the beginning of the book she is eighty-nine years old and has just lost her beloved grandson, Bill, who has committed suicide after returning from fighting in the Gulf War. As Lilly mourns for her grandson, she begins to remember all the things that have happened in her life and over the next seventeen days she shares her memories with us.

Canaan, in the Bible, is the ‘promised land’ and the title On Canaan’s Side represents the idea that many Irish people had that America was a place where they would be safe and happy. Lilly’s story begins during her childhood in Ireland as the daughter of the superintendent of the Dublin police. She is forced to run away to America when both she and her boyfriend, Tadg Bere, find themselves the target of an IRA death sentence. However, Lilly soon discovers that even there, on ‘Canaan’s Side’, she and Tadg are still in danger. The following decades are filled with tragedy and sorrow. Lilly’s story is unbearably sad and yet her voice never becomes self-pitying; she stays a strong and resilient character until the day when her ‘eighty-nine year-old heart’ finally breaks.

At first I thought I wasn’t going to enjoy this book because the first chapter was very ‘stream-of-consciousness’ and it seemed as if it was going to be one of those novels where nothing really happens. But when I got further into the book and the story began to take shape I didn’t want to stop reading. I mentioned at the start of this post how beautifully written The Secret Scripture was and I thought Sebastian Barry’s writing was possibly even more beautiful in this book. I usually prefer books with more plot but the way Barry uses language and imagery is so stunning and mesmerising, the slow pace of the story didn’t bother me.

And it’s really not true that nothing happens: there’s murder, rape and suicide, for a start. Other themes include war (both World Wars, Vietnam and the Gulf War) and how it’s possible to survive a war physically but not mentally; identity and how sometimes we can live with people for years without really knowing who they are; important events in Irish and American history; racial tensions; love and loss.

I loved this book and although it was slow to begin with, I was soon swept away by the quality of Barry’s writing and the atmosphere his words convey. I haven’t read his previous books Annie Dunne and A Long, Long Way but as they are about Lilly’s sister and brother I really should read them soon.

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

It’s 2011, the start of a new reading year, but I still have a few reviews to post of books that I read in December 2010.  This is the first, and I’ll be posting another two later in the week before I start to discuss my 2011 reading.

The Secret Scripture tells the story of Roseanne McNulty, who has spent most of her adult life in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. She’s now almost one hundred years old and has decided to devote her final days to recording her life story in a secret journal. Meanwhile, the hospital is about to be closed down and Dr Grene has begun the slow process of reassessing his patients to see if they can return to the community. There’s something about Roseanne that intrigues him and he becomes determined to find out why she is there and how she came to be admitted to a mental institution.

The story is told in the form of two alternating narratives: the first is Roseanne’s Testimony of Herself in which she relates anecdotes and memories from her childhood in Sligo, Ireland, building up a picture of the events that led to her admission to the mental hospital. Roseanne is a captivating narrator with a strong, memorable voice and her story is absolutely heartbreaking; it seemed her whole life was just one tragedy after another. The second narrative is from Dr Grene’s Commonplace Book, the doctor’s account of his investigations into Roseanne’s past, as well as the details of his own troubled marriage and strained relationships. Although Dr Grene’s voice was not as strong as Roseanne’s, I still found his sections of the story interesting.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot because I think this is one of those books that will have more impact if you go into it knowing as little as possible. What I do want to tell you about is Sebastian Barry’s writing style. His style is quite unusual, very poetic in places, and it took me a few chapters to get used to it. But as the book went on, I became more and more impressed by the quality of the writing. There are so many great lines, such as when Dr Grene describes his relationship with his wife:

Now we are two foreign countries and we simply have our embassies in the same house. Relations are friendly but strictly diplomatic.

Or when Roseanne describes how her mother’s beauty has faded:

She was like a painting with its varnish darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work.

It really was beautifully written and the plot started to take second place to the gorgeous prose.

The author assumes you have some previous knowledge of 20th century Irish history. There are a lot of references to the Free State, the Irregulars, the IRA, Eamonn de Valera, the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Irish civil war, for example. I only have a basic knowledge of Irish history and although I could still follow what was happening, I think I might have got more out of the novel if I’d had a deeper understanding of the historical and political context. I also knew nothing at all about the bombing of Belfast during World War II, described here by one of the characters:

I ran like a demon along the ways, screaming I do not doubt, and saying wild prayers for the people of Belfast, and soon there were hundreds in the streets, all doing the same as me, people in their nightdresses and people naked as babes, running and screaming, and at the edge of the city we just kept going, and the waves of planes had come in behind us, all the while without mercy letting go the bombs, and an hour later or maybe more, I cannot say, I was perched on the edge of a huge dark mountain, and looked back, and Belfast was a huge lake of fire, burning, burning, the flames leaping like red creatures, tigers and such, high high into the sky…

This is just one example of Barry’s vivid imagery; I could have included a lot more.

The only thing that disappointed me about this book was a plot development towards the end that just felt too contrived and unrealistic. If it wasn’t for that one negative point, The Secret Scripture would definitely have been one of my favourite books of 2010.

Highly recommended