Adam Ehrlich Sachs, Benjamin Black, book reviews, Daniel Mason, Diane Setterfield, historical fiction, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Jane Harris, Lissa Evans, literary fiction, Louis Bayard, Martine Fournier Watson, mystery fiction, Pat Barker, Robert Hillman, thriller, Tim Mason, Umberto Eco
Novelhistorian celebrates its fifth birthday this week with the usual retrospective of the books that have made the deepest impression on me during the past year. I’d also like to thank you, my readers, for making this blog worthwhile. I’m glad you’ve stuck with me, and I hope it’s rewarding.
There are thirteen books this year, more than normal, because I couldn’t bear to leave any out. In no particular order, they are:
The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker, retells the Trojan War from the point of view of Briseis, Achilles’ captive concubine, whom Agamemnon seizes and thereby causes rifts within the Greek camp. Tradition holds Briseis to blame, but, as the protagonist of this superb novel points out, the tellers of that tradition are male. Barker’s storytelling is so acute that you can imagine she has known these mythical figures all her life.
The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason, offers an unusual romance and coming-of-age story set against harrowing, scrupulously observed scenes at a First World War field hospital in Poland. Mason not only renders his characters in full psychological depth, he explores what medicine means for the healer as well as the patient, a fresh, compelling theme.
Sugar Money, by Jane Harris, shows you late eighteenth-century slavery in the Caribbean, and what a heart-breaking, riveting picture that is. The novel succeeds as adventure, a tale of another time, sibling rivalry, and an exposé of colonialism; the prose, vivid as a poem, relies heavily on Kréyol phrases and at times reads like music.
Courting Mr. Lincoln, by Louis Bayard, recounts the courtship between an up-and-coming Illinois backwoods lawyer and a Kentucky belle, revealing the lighter side of each as well as their lonely, tortured souls. Often hilarious, this novel reminds me of Austen for its wit and social observation, but you also see the president in the making.
Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield, tells the mystery of how a child in late nineteenth-century Oxfordshire emerges from a river apparently dead, only to revive — and no one knows who she is. The solution involves violence, loss, conspiracy, and romance; storytelling doesn’t get more seductive than this, and though the premise sounds woo-woo, it isn’t.
Wolf on a String, by Benjamin Black (pseudonym of John Banville), tells an age-old story about a young man on the make. But the year is 1599, and the court of mad Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor, is a snake pit, especially if you have to solve a murder to survive. The tension never flags, and the story has the ring of historical truth, even though the author made most of it up.
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar, narrates the unlikely romance between a straight-laced eighteenth-century English merchant and a courtesan. The story reminds me of a modern-day tale by Henry Fielding, complete with intricate plot, ribaldry, and social commentary, much of the latter concerning how men use women as possessions.
Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans, features a once-famous English suffragist in the 1930s who, decades after her heyday, mourns the lack of passion and radical feeling among the young—and her own irrelevance. The solution to both problems propels a funny, engaging story and involves a maddening yet sympathetic heroine.
In The Dream Peddler, by Martine Fournier Watson, sometime in the early 1900s, a well-dressed salesman with courtly manners arrives in a Midwestern rural town and offers his customers the dreams they desire, with a money-back guarantee. At first, the townspeople suppose he’s a charlatan, but he’s not; and in a way, that causes more trouble.
The Darwin Affair, by Tim Mason, spins the 1859 publication of The Origin of Species into a brilliant psychological thriller involving an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria and multiple murders. I hate suspense novels whose surprise solution involves a psychopath, but here, the villain is in plain sight. So are Prince Albert, Karl Marx, Thomas Huxley, and many other figures, including three famous Charleses — Darwin, Dickens, and Field, our hero detective, a real historical figure.
The Organs of Sense, by Adam Ehrlich Sachs, tells the utterly madcap story of the seventeenth-century polymath Gottfried Leibniz visiting a recluse astronomer who, alone in Europe, has predicted a total eclipse for a certain hour. Start this novel, a howlingly funny sendup of philosophy and its practitioners, and you too will want to know whether the eclipse will happen.
The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman, invokes the trope du jour. This particular bookshop, vintage 1969, belongs to an effervescent Hungarian Holocaust survivor (huh?), who falls for a taciturn Australian sheep farmer who doesn’t read books and hasn’t heard of Auschwitz. Treacle? Not in the least, because nothing in this novel happens without reversals, second thoughts, mixed feelings, or a sense of dread; the author has taken his characters’ measure and renders them as mature adults.
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, narrates a series of murders in 1327 at an abbey where a conclave debates such issues as whether Christ laughed. Such a premise might seem pointless or abstract. But this discursive yet mesmerizing novel explores profound philosophical and political issues; offers a page-turning mystery; and illuminates the past by its own lights, therefore revealing the present. The latter, to me, is the highest purpose of historical fiction.
If there’s a common thread here–besides the obvious upmarket/literary slant–it’s each author’s ability to show via concrete detail what another (and, in my view, lesser) writer would choose to tell. Getting closer to physical vividness has been my mantra as writer, especially in the past year, and many of these books have inspired me that way.
Thanks again for reading.