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Sebastian Barry wins Walter Scott Prize

19th June 2012

The GBP 25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction has been won by Sebastian Barry for his acclaimed novel On Canaan's Side.

The book, which charts the life of an Irishwoman who flees her homeland after World War One to start a new life in the US, beat off competition from an exceptionally strong shortlist to win the award.

Longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, the novel was described as 'wonderful' by the Walter Scott Prize judging panel and an echo of Scott's own ability to 'shift perceptions of a period in history'.

'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. It was its drive, and its sustained power, that persuaded us to award the Walter Scott Prize to Sebastian Barry,' the judges said.

Praise was reserved for the other shortlisted candidates, with the panel revealing there was 'little more than a whisker' between On Canaan's Side and the other five novels in contention.

These included Andrew Miller's Pure, which won the overall Book of the Year Prize at the Costa Book Awards earlier this year, and Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize and scooped the CAN 25,000 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues, which picked up the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize and was shortlisted for both the 2011 Man Booker Prize and 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction, was also in contention.

The shortlist was completed by The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst, who scooped the UK author of the year prize at the 2011 Galaxy National Book Awards, and The Quality of Mercy by 1992 Booker Prize winner Barry Unsworth, who died earlier this month at the age of 81.

When receiving the award at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Barry spoke of his surprise at triumphing in the face of such strong competition.

'I really was not expecting to win - just look at the other authors on the shortlist. I'm uncharacteristically speechless,' he added.

Barry follows in the footsteps of Andrea Levy, who won the 2011 Walter Scott Prize for The Long Song, her account of one girl's experiences during the abolition of slavery in 1830s Jamaica.

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