[The JRB Daily] ‘A story luminously told’—Marguerite Poland’s historical novel A Sin of Omission shortlisted for prestigious Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

The shortlist for the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction has been announced, including South African author Marguerite Poland, for her novel A Sin of Omission.

The prize was first awarded in 2010 and celebrates ‘quality of writing in the English language’. It is open to novels published in the previous year in the United Kingdom, Ireland or the Commonwealth. Reflecting the subtitle ‘Sixty Years Since’ of Walter Scott’s famous novel Waverley, the majority of an eligible novel’s storyline must have taken place at least sixty years ago. Previous winners include the South African-based author Tan Twan Eng, Hilary Mantel, Sebastian Barry and Robert Harris. Damon Galgut was shortlisted for the 2015 edition of the award for his novel Arctic Summer.

The winner receives £25,000 (about R558,000) and shortlisted authors each receive £1,500.

2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction shortlist

  • The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey
  • The Parisian by Isabella Hammad
  • To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek
  • Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor
  • The Redeemed by Tim Pears
  • A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland

The judges said of A Sin of Omission:

‘It’s a rare book that punishes the sins of the past with beauty, but Marguerite Poland knows the power of doing just that. Quietly, implacably, in writing that cuts to the heart of the matter, she draws us into the life of Stephen Mzamane, a young South African trained for Christian missionary work, eager to serve both God and his own people but hampered by conflicted loyalties and the entrenched prejudices of both society and the Anglican Church. Set in the late nineteenth century, the bells of Canterbury and the bells of Africa ring out a story of what was, what might have been, and what in some places, shamefully, still is. An important story, then, and a difficult one, but in the hands of Marguerite Poland, a story luminously told.’

‘It is a formidable honour for any writer to have their work recognised by such an eminent panel of judges and very greatly appreciated,’ Poland said in reaction to the news. ‘Writing A Sin of Omission has been a long, difficult and demanding project for me for a number of reasons but one with transcendent moments during research, and in the company of others, that made the writing of it the journey of a lifetime.’

Poland first heard the story as a fourteen-year old, told to her by a great uncle: ‘A fragment of history that lodged in my heart followed by a long gestation served by every other work I have written.

‘In writing the book, I hope to have witnessed, in some small and personal degree, a history, culture and language that, for centuries, have suffered from the insidious sins of omission born of deceit, paternalistic patronage and outright repression. Mostly, I hope that in creating the fictional character, Rev. Stephen Malusi Mzamane, I have honoured and respected the real man on whom he is based, the known fragments of whose life might have remained obscure forever but whose story, I believe, reflects the lives of legions of his fellow countrymen and women whose names “are only known to God’.

‘I am deeply aware that this shortlist nomination could never have been achieved without the generous commitment of my publishers or the scholarship, interest, friendship and love of all who encouraged me and travelled with me along the way, especially my family.’

The prize is usually awarded at the Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland, in mid-June, but the event has been postponed because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Prize organisers are currently reviewing how and when the winner will be announced.

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