The Walter Scott Prize 2021 Shortlist

Following the announcement of the 2021 longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in February, the shortlist has been revealed today. As you may know, I am slowly working my way through all of the shortlisted titles for this prize since it began in 2010 (you can see my progress here), so I will be trying to read all of the books below eventually. There are five books on this year’s list and here they are:

Image courtesy of The Walter Scott Prize


The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte

“In the first year of the doomed German invasion of Russia in WWII, a German military doctor, Paul Bauer, is assigned to establish a field hospital at Yasnaya Polyana – the former grand estate of Count Leo Tolstoy, the author of the classic War and Peace. There he encounters a hostile aristocratic Russian woman, Katerina Trubetzkaya, a writer who has been left in charge of the estate. But even as a tentative friendship develops between them, Bauer’s hostile and arrogant commanding officer, Julius Metz, becomes erratic and unhinged as the war turns against the Germans. Over the course of six weeks, in the terrible winter of 1941, everything starts to unravel…

From the critically acclaimed and award-winning author, Steven Conte, The Tolstoy Estate is ambitious, accomplished and astonishingly good: an engrossing, intense and compelling exploration of the horror and brutality of conflict, and the moral, emotional, physical and intellectual limits that people reach in war time. It is also a poignant, bittersweet love story – and, most movingly, a novel that explores the notion that literature can still be a potent force for good in our world.”


A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

“It is 1788. Twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth is hungry for life but, as the ward of a Devon clergyman, knows she has few prospects. When proud, scarred soldier John Macarthur promises her the earth one midsummer’s night, she believes him.

But Elizabeth soon realises she has made a terrible mistake. Her new husband is reckless, tormented, driven by some dark rage at the world. He tells her he is to take up a position as Lieutenant in a New South Wales penal colony and she has no choice but to go. Sailing for six months to the far side of the globe with a child growing inside her, she arrives to find Sydney Town a brutal, dusty, hungry place of makeshift shelters, failing crops, scheming and rumours.

All her life she has learned to be obliging, to fold herself up small. Now, in the vast landscapes of an unknown continent, Elizabeth has to discover a strength she never imagined, and passions she could never express.

Inspired by the real life of a remarkable woman, this is an extraordinarily rich, beautifully wrought novel of resilience, courage and the mystery of human desire.”


The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

“England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen, Jane Seymour.

Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?

With The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion and courage.”


Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

“On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.”


The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

“Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the ‘Scriptorium’, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world.

Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women’s experiences often go unrecorded. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, she begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

Set when the women’s suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It’s a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape the world and our experience of it.”


The only one of these I’ve read so far is Hamnet and although I wasn’t a fan, I’m aware that most people have loved it so I won’t be at all surprised if it wins. I’m sure The Mirror and the Light will be another strong contender; I haven’t finished it yet, but will eventually! Of the remaining three books, The Dictionary of Lost Words doesn’t appeal to me much but I’m looking forward to reading the other two (although The Tolstoy Estate hasn’t been published here in the UK yet).

What do you think of this shortlist? Which book do you think will win?

32 thoughts on “The Walter Scott Prize 2021 Shortlist

  1. whatcathyreadnext says:

    I’ve only read one of these as well – Hamnet – and I had similar thoughts about it to you, although we seem to be in the minority. I have a copy of The Mirror & The Light but haven’t made a start on it yet. This may be the excuse I need. I have the audiobook of A Room Full of Leaves. Although it’s nice to see authors from other parts of the world making the list it is a UK based prize so it seems a pity not all are yet published here.

    • Helen says:

      I started The Mirror & the Light just before the first lockdown last year but couldn’t concentrate and still haven’t gone back to it. Of the other books, I like the sound of The Tolstoy Estate and I agree that it’s a shame it’s not available here yet, but hopefully we won’t have to wait too long!

    • Helen says:

      I had a few problems with Hamnet, but I know a lot of people named it as their top read of 2020. I hope you’re able to read all of the others too!

  2. piningforthewest says:

    I’ve only read The Mirror and the Light and I really loved that. I want to read Hamnet and I like the sound of the Kate Grenville book.

    • Helen says:

      I’m hoping to love The Mirror and the Light too – I did make a start on it last year but the time wasn’t right, so I’m planning to go back to it soon. The Kate Grenville book does sound good!

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t dislike Hamnet, but I didn’t think it was anything special either. The Kate Grenville book does sound interesting – I’m looking forward to reading it!

  3. Constance says:

    I liked what I read of Hamnet but wasn’t done when it was time to wrap it and send to my sister for Christmas. I really liked the first two books in the Mantel series (despite the present tense, which I find unbearably pretentious) but I sort of dread this one because I know this century well.

    The Grenville sounds harrowing but delightful! I think I would read that first. I don’t think it has been published in the US yet. Which is just as well – I have piles of library books here and three papers for graduate school due in the next five weeks.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you’re able to read the rest of Hamnet one day. I agree with you on the present tense – I often find it annoying and usually quite unnecessary, but I don’t mind it in Mantel’s books.

      Yes, the Kate Grenville book sounds good! I’m hoping to read that one soon.

  4. Lexlingua says:

    Yes to Mirror & Light and Hamnet. But the Kate Grenville one looks powerful too. I am dubious about Tolstoy Estate mainly because there’s a lot of WW II fiction and not sure if the judges don’t prefer a different time period? Dictionary of Lost Words is interesting but may not be “moving” enough — it reminds me of The Professor and the Madman, which was also about the making of the Oxford Dictionary. Some very interesting choices!

    • Helen says:

      I’m looking forward to reading the Kate Grenville book. The Tolstoy Estate sounds appealing to me, but yes, maybe the judges would prefer something different.

  5. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    Hamnet was okay for me when I read it recently, but I never fully connected to it for some reason, and will probably have forgotten most of the finer details within a few months. A Room Full of Leaves and the Tolstoy Estate look interesting though, I’ll take a look.

    • Helen says:

      I found it difficult to connect to Hamnet too, which I think was probably because of the present tense. I’m looking forward to reading the others.

  6. Brona says:

    Like you I had some problems with Hamnet. Same for a Room for of Leaves. Enjoyed Dictionary of Lost Words with my book group. Plan to read Tolstoy’s Estate & Mirror & the Light next month. Great to see three Aussie’s on the list 😊

  7. jessicabookworm says:

    Well as always Helen, I haven’t read any of these and so have little to no idea who could possibly win! 😅 Obviously I have heard of The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel and having finally braved reading Wolf Hall, I do hope that one day I will get to this too. I have also seen Hamnet doing the rounds on lots of blogs, but it doesn’t appeal to me greatly. On the other hand I really like the sound of A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville – I hope you will have chance to read it soon so I can hear more about it. 😉

    On a side note, I am rather pleased I posted my review for Ivanhoe this week, it is like I did my own small homage to this award, without even knowing the short list was coming out! 😁

    • Helen says:

      I started reading The Mirror and the Light a year ago but then the first lockdown began and I couldn’t concentrate. I’m hoping to try again soon. Yes, A Room Made of Leaves sounds really good – I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to read it, but I definitely want to eventually!

  8. Susan says:

    I have not read Hamnet but for whatever reason I think it might win. I have read Kate Grenville before but not this particular one. I’d like to read a few of these. thanks for the list!

    • Helen says:

      I think Hamnet has a good chance of winning. I wasn’t a fan, but I’m sure it’s the sort of book the judges will like. I’ve never read Kate Grenville before so I’m looking forward to reading A Room Made of Leaves!

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