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Lose yourself in a great historical novel from the 2017 Walter Scott Prize longlist

Written by · Published Feb 23, 2017

Days Without End, The Dark Circle, The Vanishing Futurist

This year’s Walter Scott Prize longlist encompasses the 17th to 20th centuries in the UK, Ireland, Paris, Switzerland, Russia, America and Canada.

The award, founded in 2010, celebrates ‘quality, innovation and longevity of writing in the English language’ among historical novel writers. It is named for Sir Walter Scott, who is commonly regarded as ‘the founding father of the historical novel’. His title Waverley, published in 1814, established the genre.

A Country Road, A Tree, by Jo Baker

“Paris, 1939: the pavement rumbles with the footfall of Nazi soldiers marching along the Champs Elysees. A young writer, recently arrived from Ireland to make his mark, smokes one last cigarette with his lover before the city they know is torn apart. Soon, he will put is own life and those of his loved ones in mortal danger by joining the Resistance.”

The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

“In May 1937 a man in his early 30s waits by the lift of a Leningrad apartment block. He waits all through the night, expecting to be taken away to the Big House. Any celebrity he has known in the previous decade is no use to him now. And few who are taken to the Big House ever return.

“A story about the collision of art and power, about human compromise, human cowardice and human courage, it is the work of a true master.”

Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry

“Having signed up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely 17, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, go on to fight in the Indian wars and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, they find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in.”

Crane Pond, by Richard Francis

“The story of Samuel Sewall, loving father and husband, anti-slavery advocate, defender of Native American rights, and presiding judge at the Salem Witchcraft Trials in 1692, where he sentenced 20 innocent women to death. He was the only judge to later admit his terrible mistake, and ask for forgiveness.

“At once a searing view of the trials from the inside out, an empathetic portrait of one of the period’s most tragic and redemptive figures, and an indictment of the malevolent power of religious and political idealism, Crane Pond explores the inner life of a well-meaning man who did evil. It humanizes an unflinching portrait of political hysteria that is as relevant today as it was in the seventeenth century.”

The Dark Circle, by Linda Grant

“The Second World War is over and a new decade is beginning but for an East End teenage brother and sister living on the edge of the law, life has been suspended. Sent away to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Kent to learn the way of the patient, they find themselves in the company of army and air force officers, a car salesman, a young university graduate, a mysterious German woman, a member of the aristocracy and an American merchant seaman.

“They discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched.”

The Vanishing Futurist, by Charlotte Hobson

“When 22-year-old Gerty Freely travels to Russia to work as a governess in early 1914, she has no idea of the vast political upheavals ahead, nor how completely her fate will be shaped by them. Yet as her intimacy with the charismatic inventor Nikita Slavkin deepens, she’s inspired by his belief in a future free of bourgeois clutter, alight with creativity and sleek as a machine.

“In 1917, revolution sweeps away the Moscow Gerty knew. The middle classes - and their governesses - are fleeing the country, but she stays, throwing herself into an experiment in communal living led by Slavkin. In the white-washed modernist rooms of the commune the members may be cold and hungry, but their overwhelming feeling is of exhilaration. They abolish private property and hand over everything, even their clothes, to the collective; they swear celibacy for the cause.

“Yet the chaos and violence of the outside world cannot be withstood for ever. Nikita Slavkin’s sudden disappearance inspires the Soviet cult of the Vanishing Futurist, the scientist who sacrificed himself for the Communist ideal. Gerty, alone and vulnerable, must now discover where that ideal will ultimately lead.”

The Good People, by Hannah Kent

“County Kerry, Ireland, 1825. Nóra, bereft after the sudden death of her beloved husband, finds herself alone and caring for her young grandson Micheál. Micheál cannot speak and cannot walk and Nóra is desperate to know what is wrong with him. What happened to the healthy, happy grandson she met when her daughter was still alive?

“Mary arrives in the valley to help Nóra just as the whispers are spreading: the stories of unexplained misfortunes, of illnesses, and the rumours that Micheál is a changeling child who is bringing bad luck to the valley.”

Minds of Winter, by Ed O’Loughlin

“It begins with a chance encounter at the top of the world. Fay Morgan and Nelson Nilsson have each arrived in Inuvik, Canada, 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle, searching for answers about a family member - Nelson for his estranged older brother, Fay for her disappeared grandfather. They soon learn that these two men have an unexpected link - a hidden share in one of the greatest enduring mysteries of polar exploration.”

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

“Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.

“They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned.”

The Essex Serpent seems to be nominated for all the prizes this year, and rightly so.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith

Unfortunately, this title is currently only available to us as an audiobook.

“In the 1600s Sara de Vos, a mother and painter, loses her young daughter suddenly to illness. In her grief, she secretly begins painting a dark landscape of a girl watching an ice skater from the edge of a wood.

In 1950s New York, Martijn de Groot has ‘At The Edge of a Wood’ hanging above his bed. Thought it is a dark, peculiar painting, by a scarcely known female painter of the Golden Age, he holds the painting dear and when it is stolen, he is bereft. In Brooklyn, struggling art student Ellie Shipley accepts a commission to paint an intricate forgery of de Vos’ sole surviving work, not realizing that her decision will come to haunt her successful academic career.”

Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford

“One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger fresh off the boat pitches up at a counting-house door in Golden Hill Street: this is Mr Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion simmering. For in his pocket, he has what seems to be an order for a thousand pounds, a huge amount, and he won’t explain why, or where he comes from, or what he can be planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money.

“Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him - maybe even kill him?”

Mothering Sunday: a romance, by Graham Swift

“It is March 30th 1924. It is Mothering Sunday. How will Jane Fairchild, orphan and housemaid, occupy her time when she has no mother to visit? How, shaped by the events of this never to be forgotten day, will her future unfold?”

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

“It is the tutor who tells the young Gustav that he must try to be more like a coconut - that he needs a hard shell to protect the softness inside. This is what his native Switzerland has perfected - a shell to protect its neutrality, to keep its people safe. But his beloved friend, Anton, doesn’t want to be safe - a gifted pianist, he longs to make his mark on the world outside.

“On holiday one summer in Davos, the boys stumble across a remote building. Long ago, it was a TB sanitarium; now it is wrecked and derelict. Here, they play a game of life and death, deciding which of their imaginary patients must burn. It becomes their secret.

The Gustav Sonata begins in the 1930s, under the shadow of the Second World War, and follows the boys into maturity, and middle age, where their friendship is tested as never before.”

Alice Violett

Alice Violett

I write and edit content for the Suffolk Libraries website. Visit my website.