Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side wins 2012 Walter Scott Prize

June 16, 2012

The Irish author Sebastian Barry has won the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction for his ‘epic and intimate’ novel On Canaan’s Side.

Choosing from what they described as ‘the strongest and closest shortlist for the Prize so far’, the Judges awarded Barry the prize for what they described as ‘wonderful writing, which, as Walter Scott did in his time, shifts perception on a period in history.’

The author accepted his prize from its sponsor, the Duke of Buccleuch, at a ceremony today at the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland.  He 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.”

The Judges 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 than persuaded us to award the Walter Scott 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. “

The prize ceremony was presented by judge Kirsty Wark, and extracts from the six shortlisted books were read by the actor John Sessions.  Tributes were paid to the shortlisted author Barry Unsworth, who sadly died on 5th June, just weeks before the announcement.

The Walter Scott Prize is in the top five richest UK literary prizes, and is sponsored by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, distant kinsmen of Sir Walter Scott. It honours Scott’s achievements and his place as one of the world’s most influential novelists. To qualify, novels must be set sixty years ago or more.

On Canaan’s Side was chosen from a shortlist of six books, whose diversity, historical range and character range from the jazz age in Nazi-occupied Europe, slavery in the English coalmines, and the closure of a cemetery in 18th-century Paris.

The judging panel for the Walter Scott Prize this year included new judges Kirsty Wark, Professor Louise Richardson of the University of St Andrews, and Jonathan Tweedie, who joined existing judges Elizabeth Laird and Elizabeth Buccleuch, and chair Alistair Moffat.  The judges’ criteria include originality and innovation, quality of writing, and the ability of a book to shift perceptions or shed new light on the events of the past.

Three of the shortlisted authors were present to hear the announcement in Melrose; Sebastian Barry, Andrew Miller and Alan Hollinghurst.  For the first time this year, the Prize opened up to authors from the Commonwealth and two Canadian authors were shortlisted, Esi Edugyan and Patrick de Witt.  Another new innovation was an additional prize from Jura Single Malt Whisky, who have offered all the shortlisted authors the opportunity to stay for a week in the exclusive Writer’s Retreat on the Hebridean Isle of Jura, sample the award-winning whisky and write a short story inspired by their stay.

The 2012 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction is for novels published in 2011.  Entries for next year’s prize will open in December.

[Press release text from Rebecca Salt at StonehillSalt PR]

Posted by Richard Lee