So now I have read two of the novels shortlisted for the 2018 Sir Walter Scott Prize which seems like a good time to tell you what I think.
I was attracted to Sugar Money when I saw it was set in Grenada because a) I had never read a novel set in Grenada and b) had recently been there, not that I had left with very much idea of its history other than the notorious ‘Leap’ incident which took place a century before the events depicted in Sugar Money. I’d also read both of Jane Harris’ previous novels which I like in different ways (particularly the artistic background of Gillespie and I) though without completely falling in love with either.
Straight away I can say I really enjoyed this book written in the voice of a teenager who accompanies a much older brother on a hazardous quest from Martinique to Grenada to recover a band of friends and fellow slaves and deliver them back to the monks who consider themselves their rightful owners. Lucien. to young to be on such a venture but determined to prove himself an adult, is a warm and entertaining companion.
A striking fact of the book is that the nucleus of slaves who contribute to this story are never consciously seeking freedom, only the possibility of living under a less harsh regime. But what gives the book its real character is the voice of Lucien, who narrates his adventures in a creole dialect combining English and French. I suppose for the first pages I was unsure of whether this would be an obstacle but I acclimatised to the language very quickly and hugely enjoyed the rhythm of his words and thoughts. The story is a sad and bitter one containing all kinds of cruelty. Lucien’s acceptance of much of this makes it all the more shocking and the style of an adventure yarn effectively cuts across the book’s deeper significance and throws it into relief. Towards the end I found the plot flagged but of Harris’ novels I would put this one (despite the huge success of The Observations) at the top of my recommendations.
So to the winner, The Gallows Pole by Ben Myers – a coup for a small press and I hope Blue Moose Books gain all the benefit they can from it – even if I found the cover (which many people love) completely off-putting!
After Sugar Money there couldn’t have been much more of a contrast in geography. We are in the same century but a very different landscape of clod and clay and cold wet Yorkshire undergrowth which Myers evokes with an intensity that does have ‘prize-winner’ written all over it. He too uses a first person narrative in a strong dialect, though only for short sections written by the man already condemned to death for ‘coining’ i.e. counterfeiting. But even when ‘King David ’ isn’t speaking we are still immersed in the landscape and its seething mass of poverty-stricken inhabitants who may not be slaves but whose lives are just as harsh. Despite their deprivations they are also deeply attached to the world they see disappearing in the face of advancing industrialism and its attendant cruelties. By comparison the comfortably off lawyer and even the exciseman occupy a peak of affluence which is still a risky place to be when one of them falls victim to the desperation of the underclass.
This is a strong and stirring read and if I didn’t identify readily with any of its main characters that was maybe not the author’s intention and the device of knowing the hero’s fate in advance of hearing how it came about kept up the tension.
I began from a position of reviewing two contrasting books but despite the difference in geography and style (no opportunities for humour in The Gallows Pole compared to the youthful ebullience which makes us smile in Sugar Money) I see these two books are more similar than I realised. Both of them use a distinctive voice to immerse us completely in times and places of great cruelty and bring us face to face with man’s inhumanity to man. They also use the increasingly popular device of citing contemporary documents (in these cases probably real) and explaining how the story came to light which seems to have caught on with His Bloody Project and been prevalent ever since.
More importantly, like all great historical novels, they make us ponder how much or how little times have changed.