Back in July I wrote about the nature of historical fiction and asked how much factual detail was necessary and how much should be left to the reader’s imagination. I received great feedback, with most people saying they could forgive some leeway but expected the main facts to be accurate. I totally agree but it’s a tough balance sometimes.
We read historical fiction not to learn history so much as to live it, to get a sense of the past without having been there. But there’s more to be learned, I think, than that.
What does the past have to teach us about the present? What’s changed and what’s stayed the same? How do we relate to characters from such different times and places than ourselves? There are so many questions to be explored within the pages of a good historical novel - a popular genre with vast possibilities. Here are a few of my favourites:
THE WELSH GIRL by Peter Ho Davies
Set in northern Wales shortly after D-Day, this is a wonderful story with great characters caught in a time of extraordinary circumstances. Profoundly moving, the novel traces the intersection of disparate lives that cause each of them to question where their loyalty lies.
THE COLONY OF UNREQUITED DREAMS by Wayne Johnston
Canadian writer Johnston has become known for his novels depicting Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland’s first premiere, and his rise to fame. Part fiction, part historical, this book weaves the story of Newfoundland joining Canadian confederation with the irresistible characters of Smallwood and his (fictional) relationship with an eccentric, alcoholic journalist.
RIVER THIEVES by Michael Crummey
This beautiful book by another astounding Canadian writer is at once tragic, exciting, sad, tense, and suspenseful. Tells part of the story of the extinction of the Beothuk or the “Red Indians” of Newfoundland in the early 1800’s. Central to the story is the fictional tale of white settlers and all their dysfunctional relationships, as well as the British government’s attempt to bring justice to the Indians. Set in the stark landscape of The Rock, the story captures the vast sweep of our earliest history.
THE POSTMISTRESS by Sarah Blake
Another beautiful story, told so well. Set during WWII, the novel follows three main characters, all women: a radio reporter covering the war from London, a middle-aged postmistress, and a young wife whose doctor husband is helping overseas. Alternating between U.S. and Europe, this remarkable novel is a joy to read.
THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton
A whale of a book written by a Canadian raised in New Zealand, it’s a fascinating look at rural N.Z. In 1866. A mining town full of prostitutes, gold diggers and other unsavoury characters trying to make their fortunes, this intricate cast of people and their complex web of fates, plots and motives, makes for a community where everyone has something to hide. A gripping page-turner, richly imagined.
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this sensitive novel sees directly into its characters’ souls. The story follows a young blind French girl and a young orphaned German boy from 1934 through the war as they slowly, but inevitably, interconnect in the war’s last dying days. Never without a sense of how good people can be to one another, the writer shows the horrible choices people have had to make and the cost of those choices. Delicate yet suspenseful, this book left me gasping for more.
TO CAPTURE WHAT WE CANNOT KEEP by Beatrice Colin
A lovely story that revolves around the construction of the Eiffel Tower in the late 1800’s. The sense of place and history was utterly unfamiliar to me but thoroughly enjoyable. A great escape into the world of strictly traditional behaviour, secret romantic trysts, and bohemian artists of the Left Bank.
This list barely touches the many fabulous books under the genre of historical fiction. It’s one of my favourites to read and there are so many more worth mentioning. Maybe I’ll come back to it with part two, but in the meantime, let me know what some of your favs are.
Until next time, happy reading!