Thursday 13 September 2012

HWA/Goldsboro Crown for Best Debut Historical Fiction Novel 2012

by Manda Scott

Having recently read Neal Stephenson’s masterpiece, ‘Cryptonomicon’, I was going to write a column on the evolution of codes and ciphers, but looking at the date, I realized that exactly a week today, I’ll be in Cecil Court, London at History in the Court, and, together with Dave Headley of Goldsboro Books, will announce the winner of the first ever ‘HWA/Goldsboro Crown for Debut Historical Fiction’. 

The prize, self evidently, is for the book that is, in the judges’ opinion, the best first work of fiction with an historical content published within the dates of the prize, in this case, October 2010 to end September 2011.  Goldsboro books has kindly put up a perpetual prize of £2000 for the winner, and Dave Headley has commissioned an amazing crystal award which should grace any winner’s mantelpiece. 

I can’t, of course, tell you who the winner is, but in many ways, I really don’t want to.  Our shortlist is so strong that I would far prefer it if we didn’t have to pick one out of the pack and set it above the rest. I’m well aware that many of those involved in literary prizes say this, and, having been shortlisted 3 times in my career so far, I can tell you that I’ve always thought that was a sop to the losers, particularly since I have never yet won, (first novel award, Orange Prize and Edgar Award respectively).  This time, though, it’s true.  Our panel of judges, ably chaired by Dave Headley included a publisher – Maria Rejt, a non-fiction author, Tom Holland, who was until recently the Chair of the Society of Authors, a blogger and reviewer, Ayo Onatade, and me, in my capacity as Chair of the Historical Writers’ Association. 

We had planned a big splash for the announcement of the shortlist at Kelmarsh this year as the highlight of our two-day Festival of Historical Literature.  But this was the year of the Great Wash Out(s).  I began to grow nervous the week before it was due to take place when the CWA Game Fair was cancelled.  The GF is never cancelled (Foot and Mouth doesn’t count), but the authorities at Kelmarsh promised that they had the best-drained land in the whole of England and would never ever cancel.  We believed them, right up until 5: 30 on the Saturday morning, 3 hours before gate opening, when the Viking re-enactors who had been camping on site called to say they were stranded on the wrong side of a river that had arrived in the night.  The stories of the Viking family who lifted their (authentic Viking) tent onto dry ground only to see their daughter sail off downstream on the (not authentically Viking) airbed are amusing in retrospect, but weren’t at the time.  The only good thing to come out of it was the moment we discovered that the rumoured collapse of the Paviliion, which contained over a hundred books each for 35 authors hadn’t, in fact, caved in.  Life is full of small mercies. 

So: the shortlist was released to the press, but it wasn’t quite the same and we never had quite the fanfare I had planned for.  This then, is my making up in the best way I can.  Below, are all four of the shortlisted novels: they’re not all by women, though by happenstance, and dint of beautiful writing, two of them are. They’re presented in alphabetic order of author’s surname, that being just about the only fair way to do it. 

First is Ellen Byron’s amazing book, ‘The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno’.  Ellen is one of those people who has done all the most exotic things I dream of but never quite get around to.  As a modern dancer, she met her husband in Buenos Aires where she was teaching the Samba.  Returning to the US with him, she became involved in philanthropic work, both for private and community foundations, culminating in a job with the Council of foundations in Washington DC, and now she’s thinking of moving to France.

In the midst of all this, she penned a barnstorming novel set in New York in 1865.  Lincoln has just been assassinated, the Civil War is still bright in people’s minds and Phineas Taylor (PT) Barnum, he of ‘there’s one born every minute’ is peddling his exotic mix of theatre and circus, his ‘prodigies and exotics’ to an ever-fascinated audience.  Bartholomew Fortuno is displayed as The World’s Thinnest Man.  His best friend and soul mate is The World’s Fattest Woman. They rub along together fairly well with the Giantess and the Rubber Man in a hotel/theatre where the hierarchy of True Prodigy > Prodigy > Exotic is what keeps every man and woman in his place (our hero considers himself a True Prodigy.  The Rubber Man, by contrast, is a mere Exotic).  When the maid, Bridget, is transformed into an Exotic, there is outrage.  

But into this mix comes the Incredible Bearded Woman, a rarity of such exotic allure – such eroticism – that it turns Bartholomew’s carefully controlled (and manifestly anorexic) life on its head.  
This is a beautiful novel of humanity and love and loss, all the more potent for the close-knit nature of the narrative.  Everything takes place in the theatre or its immediate surround and the emotional pressures, the need to succeed, to draw in the crowds, bring their own narrative drive.  It’s an era and a place about which I knew nothing, but was completely enthralled. 

Next along is ‘Partitions’ by Amit Majmudar.  Another American, Amit Majmudar is an award winning poet (his collection, Heaven and Earth won the Donald Justice Prize in 2011) and a diagnostic nuclear radiologist.  His medical training shows through at one point in Partitions, when the protagonists have to deal with a pneumothorax, but in the main, what sets this book apart is the astonishing poetry of the writing. 
Set in 1947 at the time of the partition of India, this is a ghost story, a story of loss and recovery and a heart-breaking story of family’s broken apart forever by the appalling sectarian violence that consumed the nascent states of India and Pakistan. 

The book is narrated by the ghost of an Indian surgeon, who looks in on the lives of twin six-year-old Hindu boys – his sons – who have become separated from their mother and must try to get from what will be Pakistan and Muslim, to Delhi on the safe (ish) side of the border.  He also follows a lost Sikh girl who has evaded her family’s suicide pact, and a Muslim doctor, Ibrahim Masud, (he of the pneumothorax treatment) who is forced into Pakistan despite the fact that his practice was amongst the Hindu population of India.   This is a slim volume, but the story could not be more engaging.  The ghost-narrator shields us from a reality that would otherwise by too appalling to contemplate, while never stepping back from the raw hatred, the violence, the sheer inhumanity – and occasional powerful humanity – of those involved.  Given the repercussions that will stretch easily into the next century, this is a powerful, moving book that should be on everyone’s shelves. 

Third in our list is ‘Mistress of her Fate’ by the historian Hallie Rubenhold.  Hallie’s non-fiction works include ‘Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies; sex in the city in Georgian Britain’  - Harris’s list was the ’50 Shades’ of its day, although one assumes that the overwhelming majority of the 250,000 sales (this in the days before mass consumerism) were men, not women. An annual ‘guide book’ it listed the ‘specialities’ of the prostitutes of Covent Garden. 

Her subsequent non-fiction work, ‘Lady Worseley’s Whim’ details the then-scandalous activities of a ménage a trois that made it to the headlines when Lady Worsley’s husband sued her lover for Criminal Conversation. The resulting trial was the talk of the town. 

These two together make an excellent foundation for Hallie’s novel.  First of a trilogy, it is told in the first person by Henrietta Lightfoot, detailing her transformation from the downtrodden foundling ‘sister’ of an appalling society prig, to ‘kept woman’, to ‘actress’, to adventurer-in-France evading the French Revolution, then in full swing.   Through it all, she is driven by her love for Geroge Allenham, the man who first seduces her, and leaves her pregnant while he vanishes to places unknown.  Her narrative thereafter is drive by her need to survive in a society where single pregnant women had no place but the gutter, as much as it is to find George.  A complete naïf at the start, she becomes ever more worldly-wise, which means, in effect, ever more able to manipulate the men who fall for her gamine charm. 

So often, novels written by historians are solid blocks of research hung about barely plausible narrative pegs.  ‘The Confessions of Henriatta Lightfoot’ (the subtitle) could not be further from that baseline.  The writing is beautifully evocative and feels perfectly ‘of the time’  - it reminds me in that way of AL Berridge’s “Into the Valley of Death” or Andrew Taylor’s masterful ‘American Boy’.  The pace is fast and each new man takes up long enough to understand what Henrietta has to sacrifice to be with him, and then to be ready for her to leave. It’s a joy of a book, and well worth reading. 

Finally, at least in our alphabetic list, is Robert Wilton’s ‘The Emperor’s Gold’.  Robert is another historian – he studied for an MA in European history and culture at the University of London, but soon after, joined the UK Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office.  He’s been Private Secretary to three Secretaries of State and was advisor to the Prime Minister of Kosovo in the lead up to that country’s independence. He lives and works their now as a senior international official. 

His novel stems from his time in the shadowy underworld of government.  Set in 1805, its premise is that Wilton has discovered a dossier in a dust-filled cabinet pertaining to the ‘Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey’, a deniable organisation considerably more clandestine than MI6, operating independent of Government to unknown and uncertain ends.  The clear implication is that it is still in action doing things that we’d all rather not know about. For this novel, Wilton has pieced together the gap-filled narrative relating to the time immediately preceding Napoleon’s planned invasion of Britain.  

The narrative is based on the person of ‘Tom Roscarrock’ – not his real name – who is pulled from the sea off Cornwall, the only survivor of a shipwreck.  Given his new name, Tom is conscripted into The Comptrollerate and, with remarkably little direction, is propelled into the heart of an organisation, a city and a nation on the brink of collapse.  Around England, men are calling for the same freedoms they see in France, while the victorious Napoleon sees Britain as the last remaining prize that will complete his Empire.   Without any clue as to whom he can safely trust, Roscarrock must make decisions that will not only keep him alive, but decide the fate of nations. 

This is the first spy thriller I’ve read in a long, long time (and I write them, so I’ve read pretty much every one that’s worth reading) where I truly haven’t known who the bad guys were and how they did it, until the very last page.  The twists and turns in the narrative give it tremendous drive, but it’s the poetry of the writing that makes it stand out.  In some novels, a sentence or two is exceptional and leaves me, as a writer, in awe of the work.  This novel left me in awe from start to finish.  Nothing is unnecessarily flowery, but every single sentence is a joy to read.
So that’s our four.  All of them deserve to win. It’s just unfortunate that one of them has to.  This time next week, we’ll know which it is.  In the meantime, enjoy them all as equals; it’s what they should be.


Mary Hoffman said...

How fascinating! I hope you'll come back in a week's time and tell us in the comments who the winner really is!

Unknown said...

I might be a day late, because I'll be in London handing out the prize, but I'll tweet it extensively and come here as soon as I'm home with the news. The truth is, though, that they all deserve to win: truly, they're all exceptional novels.

Anonymous said...

Well I bet that next year's winner will be Hilary Mantel.

Mary Hoffman said...

Not if it's for a debut novel, Anonymous!

Rupert Colley said...

All four sound great, especially given such fine intros here. Based on this article alone the one that intrigues me the most is Partitions. But good luck to all four!

Penny Dolan said...

What a wealth of interesting novels! Which one to choose to read first? Kept thinking "yes, I'll try that until I read the next review. Decisions, decisions.

Glad all four titles got some publicity here at least, rather than only hearing about the one "winner" from sparse mentions in the media. Thanks.

Jackson said...

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Manda Scott said...

Greetings, all

Rather later than anticipated (I was in London for the award ceremony, then home with a migraine, then teaching), I would like to let you all know that the winner was...

Robert Wilton's 'THE EMPEROR'S GOLD'

It truly was an almost impossible task to pick one from the four, and I do heartily encourage you to read all of them...