Today, Novelhistorian is six years old, and as I do every anniversary, I recap my dozen or so favorites from the past twelve months.
Start with Dominicana, by Angie Cruz, which brings you to a time and place seldom seen in mainstream historical fiction, an upper Manhattan barrio in 1965. A child-bride essentially sold off by a scheming mother as the family’s ticket out of Dominican Republic must cope with a strange, hostile city; a tight-fisted, abusive husband; and the knowledge that the country in which she now lives is abusing her homeland too. She’s a compelling heroine of a heart-rending story, but it’s her toughness and ingenuity that raise this immigrant’s narrative several notches.
Isabella Hammad, in The Parisian, tells of a young medical student from Palestine who travels to France for his education in 1914 (and to escape conscription by the Ottoman authorities). Abroad, he loses himself in freedoms he never dreamed of, and his return to Palestine causes shock waves within him, echoing the nationalist politics in which he’s involved. Both he and his country are looking for liberation, but neither knows how to go about it. Hammad tells her story in a florid, languorous style reminiscent of Flaubert and Stendhal in its fixation on small moments and one person’s biography as a window on a time and place. The book nearly founders in its first 150 pages, but stay with it, and you’ll be richly rewarded.
Robert Harris never stops dreaming up new ways to recount history through fiction, and A Second Sleep is no exception. Genre-bending, yet steeped in his bold narrative approach, in spare yet evocative prose, this thriller brings you to what seems like fifteenth-century England. But the struggle between free thought and religious teaching, human frailty and temptation will work in any time period—and if I sound vague, it’s deliberate, because this novel works best if you let it creep up on you, with little foreknowledge. The pages exhale history like a subtle, authoritative scent; prepare to be intoxicated.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free takes place in 1809, and Andrew Miller’s thriller differs from the ordinary too, but in an unusual way: It’s delicate. Few books in this genre indulge in lush, patient description, yet these pages turn quickly, thanks to Miller’s active prose, brilliant storytelling, and ingenious concept, a manhunt for a man who’s also searching for himself. Inner life matters here, for heroes and villains both, a refreshing change, when cardboard bad guys abound in fiction. The romance between a traumatized soldier with blood on his conscience and a freethinking woman who sees through him but is losing her eyesight will make you marvel, not least because the reader perceives them more clearly than they do one another.
For a different mood entirely, I propose This Is Happiness, by Niall Williams, a love song to the rural Ireland of 1957. The narrative hinges, among other things, on chronic rain stopping for no apparent reason, the arrival of electricity, the character of the new priest in town, and the power of storytelling, all seen through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old who’s just quit the seminary. Warmth, humor, and melodic prose turn a long series of small events into a large story. I almost put this book down several times but always went back—it will seduce you, if you let it. As the narrator observes, “Sometimes the truth can only be reached by exaggeration,” and everyone in town has their own approach to it. Worth the price of admission: a description of a first love, hilarious and painful, practically on a physiological level.
When it comes to First World War fiction, I’m a stickler for accuracy, whether we’re talking about events, attitudes, or characters true to their time. Come the week of Armistice Day, I’ll be writing a column on my all-time faves, but for now, consider The Poppy Wife, by Caroline Scott. She gets everything right, partly a function of her PhD in history but also how she treats that discipline as a living, breathing entity. She offers a superb premise, in which a woman sets out in 1921 to search for a husband presumed dead in battle but never found. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law, who served alongside the missing man, tries not to reveal that he loves her, just as he tried not to let his brother know. Not an ounce of sentimentality taints this narrative, which deploys power and psychological complexity, showing how survivors can be lost as well as the dead, and how perception and memory can twist even what we’re sure of.
Mariah Fredericks captures the upper-crust social world of 1912 New York (and the gritty life of the less fortunate) in Death of a New American. A lady’s maid, enraged by the senseless murder of an Italian immigrant nanny, whose only fault was to love the children she tended, sets her sights on justice. The sleuth’s quest naturally puts her at odds with the posh family she works for, one of the Four Hundred. However, she’s clever and indefatigable, and she’s seen too much of life to be earnest, which is even better. This splendid mystery, which will keep you guessing, deals with xenophobia, gang violence, the disparities of social class, and the workings of the yellow press—Fredericks knows New York of that era inside out. I wish I’d discovered this series sooner.
Hilary Mantel needs no introduction, nor does The Mirror & the Light, the final volume of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s counselor of common birth. Fiction at its finest, the novel explores the pitfalls and attractions of power while recounting how a gifted politician attempts to keep a childish, make-the-earth-stand-still monarch from destroying himself and his kingdom. There’s plenty of intrigue and backstabbing—we’re talking about Tudor England—but, as usual, Mantel raises the bar. Cromwell’s a master psychologist and political strategist, and, through his eyes, you see a nation grappling with how to escape medieval mayhem and derive a more fitting social template for an increasingly modern age. A timeless story, in other words.
The Yellow Bird Sings an enthralling, heart-breaking song of the Holocaust, and Jennifer Rosner, making an impressive debut here, is an author to watch. The premise is almost a trope by now—in 1941 Poland, a Jewish widow, who has sacrificed so much for her very young daughter just to keep them both alive, faces a terrible choice. She must decide whether to flee alone into the forest, handing her child over to a Catholic orphanage, or to travel with the little girl, who’s too young to have a sense of danger or the stamina to confront it. But Rosner convincingly makes this premise her own; her prose, active descriptions, and sense of her characters’ inner lives make a riveting, moving tale. The little girl possesses no flaws other than those typical of her age, but that idealized portrayal is the only real blemish in a novel that protects no one and whitewashes nothing. Throughout, the author uses music as the means by which the oppressed and hunted may find beauty, though the world at large couldn’t be uglier.
Perhaps the most original novel on this list, which is saying something, To Calais, in Ordinary Time, is James Meek’s plague narrative of fourteenth-century England. His portrayal sounds almost prophetic, published a few months before the pandemic. But that’s just for starters. As one wise character says, “Love is whatever remains once one has made an accommodation with fate”—and accommodation is precisely what nobody’s looking for. The central female character, the daughter of the manor, flees home to escape a forced marriage, seeking her less-than-chivalric lover, whom she expects to behave like the hero of a book she’s read. The central male character, a young peasant, has abandoned the same manor to serve as an archer at Calais, expecting to gain the right to live anywhere he likes—and learns the word freedom, which he’s never heard before. Speaking of words, Meek recounts much of his narrative in archaic language, rhythm, and syntax, with loving artistry and much humor, an impressive re-creation of the period.
A Thread of Grace, Mary Doria Russell’s sprawling Holocaust novel about northwestern Italy from 1943 onward, is a gripping narrative of escape, resistance, and reprisal. The characters, who have known hardship in this hardscrabble region, possess infinite patience and resourcefulness and have learned to expect reversals and the unexpected. My favorite is a former pilot who pickles himself in alcohol and masterminds the local resistance, passing as a German businessman one day, and a tradesman or a priest the next—pretty neat, because he’s Jewish. But many characters win laurels here, and how they manage to live and sometimes love despite terror and hardship will leave a lasting impression. At the same time, Russell pulls no punches—she never does—so this is the war as it really was, not how Hollywood would have it.
Finally, An Instance of the Fingerpost depicts the combat between science and superstition in seventeenth-century England, and what a yarn Iain Pears spins. The same crime visited from several different perspectives, each narrator accusing the others of being unreliable, reveals the punishments inflicted by the self-styled righteous, thanks to their unshakable belief in faulty logic. A brilliant thriller about the nature of truth, this novel has much to say, and says it with insight, high drama, and humor, not least to skewer the disagreeable, smug, hidebound, and cruel behavior rampant in England. As a dead-on satire, the book carries a strongly feminist message, but by demonstration, not soapbox (an approach I wish other authors imitated). In Pears’s world, as in ours, men perceive women through the lens of their own weaknesses, and it’s no secret who suffers most.
I call these books the cream of this year’s harvest. I invite you to the reading feast!