Category Archives: Fiction — historical

The Dark Lady’s Mask, by Mary Sharratt

darkladysmaskAnother excellent foray into the late 16th/early 17th century with Mary Sharratt. This novel takes a real woman — Aemilia Bassano, daughter of an Italian musician at the court of Elizabeth I and a musician and poet in her own right. Bassano had an eventful life even based on the historical evidence available (which, as always for women in past eras, leaves a lot of gaps), which culminated in her being the first English woman to publish a book of her own poetry under her own name. However, the novel goes beyond that, to explore the theory that she might also have been the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets — not only a friend and lover of the Bard but also a collaborator in some of his plays.

Sharratt points out quite clearly in her Afterward that the identification of Bassano as the “Dark Lady” is a very controversial theory that most scholars do not think at all likely, and admits she chose it simply because it makes a great story — which of course is the liberating joy of writing historical fiction: to be able to choose the version that makes the best story. She certainly creates a memorable character in Aemilia Bassano and believable relationships not just with Shakespeare but with many other people in her life (mostly real historical characters, but also some great fictional ones such as her maids, the three Weir sisters, who might have become transformed into Macbeth’s Three Weird Sisters).

I found this novel paired very well with Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink in exploring what possibilities were open to an intelligent, educated woman in the early 17th century, in this case fleshing out the story of a real woman who was one of the few with the determination and opportunity to leave her name inscribed on the pages of English literature, if only in the margins.

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The Vanishing Point, by Mary Sharratt

vanishing pointAfter reading Mary Sharratt’s Ecstasy last year, I discovered Sharratt had written three books set in the early 17th century, the period I’m currently researching and writing about, so I started in on those. The first one I read, The Vanishing Point, deals with two English sisters, May and Hannah, whose widowed father is a doctor. While the clever and dutiful Hannah serves as her father’s apprentice despite being a girl, beautiful May avoids offers of marriage, sleeps with every boy in the village, and ruins her reputation to the point where the only hope of salvaging her future is for her to be shipped to the American colonies and married off to a distant cousin. Once she is in Virginia, communication back home is limited to a letter once a year. Hannah, who plans to join her sister in the colony once their father dies, knows very little about what is actually happening to May in the new world. When she finally does make the journey across the Atlantic herself, what she finds awaiting her is very different from what she expected.

May and Hannah are both, in their way, engaging characters, and the mystery of what actually happens to May, which Hannah has to untangle once she gets there, is played out in an intriguing way that kept me turning pages. Neither Hannah nor the reader is entirely sure who to trust, and this tension is held in balance throughout so that the ending was never at all predictable. The book is full of wonderful detail about early colonial life which is personally interesting to me because of my own project, but also, it’s just a really good read.

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The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

weightofinkI’ve been working on my Top Ten list of 2018 for a few weeks now, and I had a couple of possible books I was juggling for the last couple of open spots. Then I read The Weight of Ink, a book that had been on my radar for a long time but that I didn’t actually get a chance to read till the last week of the year. And one of those maybe-books on the Top Ten list had to go, because The Weight of Ink is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you probably know my opinions about the sub-genre I like to call “Adventures in Research” (if not, check out some of my reviews of books that fall in that category: look at the first few reviews here). Great examples of this genre include Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and the criminally underrated Gospel by Wilton Barnhardt. Bad examples include The DaVinci Code. I knew from reading the description of The Weight of Ink that it was going to be a great example of this genre: the story of a trove of seventeenth-century documents linked to London’s Jewish community, hinting at the possibility of a female scholar in the household of a learned rabbi.

For an “adventures in research” novel to be great, the historical story of the document and its creator(s) needs to be compelling, as does the present-day story of the scholars trying to translate/preserve/capture it. The present-day protagonists of The Weight of Ink are Helen Watt, a historian whose career is being mercilessly cut short by Parkinson’s Disease, and her brash young American assistant, Aaron Levy, who has demons of his own to battle. Together, they piece together the story of Ester, a young Jewish orphan who travels from Amsterdam to London in the household of the blind rabbi who has offered shelter to Ester and her brother. Both stories are vivid and compelling, with the details of Ester’s life in 1660s London so perfectly rendered that I felt like I was there. As a writer currently trying to recreate a seventeenth-century world in my own work-in-progress, I was overwhelmed by envy at Kadish’s skill.

The author has said in interviews that the story was originally inspired by Virginia Woolf’s hypothetical question “What if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister?”, which led her to imagine what a woman would have to do to be able to read, write, study and think in a place and time like Jacobean England. Ester is limited not only by her gender but by poverty, lack of family, and prejudice both within and against the Jewish community, yet she has the fierce desire and determination to fight for her own right to learn against incredible odds. Her story is not true, but by the end I desperately wanted to believe it was. I find it so easy to get angry about all the wasted talent and brilliance of women in the past who were never allowed to learn and teach and work and write and lead. It’s at least a little comforting to think that some of them, like Ester, fought to do so even if we never learned their names.

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Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan

washingtonblackThis highly acclaimed recent novel reminded me at first very much of one I read earlier this year: Andrea Levy’s The Long Song. Both begin as the story of a young enslaved person on a Caribbean island in the waning days of slavery (in the British Empire, that is — of course it continued in the US for another 30+ years). Each young person falls under the influence of a white slave-owner who takes a personal interest in them. But young Wash Black’s life takes a radically different direction than July’s life does in The Long Song. Because of the eccentricities of the plantation owner’s brother Titch, who takes Wash on as his apprentice, Washington Black embarks on a life of unexpected adventures that take him far from the Barbados plantation where he grew up.

While Washington Black’s adventures may strain credibility in places, they do provide fascinating glimpses into many different slices of life in the mid-19th century and what it might have been like to live as a black person in many different worlds. I felt that the ending of the novel did not resolve the story as much as I had hoped, though I’m sure this was the writer’s intention. She takes us on an intriguing journey and leaves much up to the reader in terms of where this journey may ultimately end up.

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Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

transcriptionKate Atkinson’s latest novel returns to the Second World War setting that dominated so much of my favourite Atkinson book, Life After Life, but without any of the magic realism that powered that novel. Transcription is a straightforward story — kind of a literary spy thriller — about a young girl named Juliet who gets involved in intelligence work during the war. She acts as a transcriptionist for an undercover agent, transcribing his recorded conversations with British Nazis. Soon enough, Juliet gets drawn into doing some undercover work of her own.

The story of Juliet’s past unfolds in sections of the book that alternate with her life ten years after the war, when she’s working in educational programming for the BBC. This placid existence seems far removed from the drama of the war years, but it’s the Cold War now and as both stories unfold we discover that Juliet’s involvement in espionage didn’t entirely end when the Nazis were defeated.

I always thought I didn’t like spy novels, but while I was racing through Transcription I realized I’ve never read a spy novel written by a woman, with a female main character, before. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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My Dear Hamilton, by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

mydearhamiltonThis is the book I’ve been wanting to read ever since I fell in love with Hamilton, the Broadway musical. I read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, which was weighty and serious and slow; I read another novel about Eliza and Alexander Hamilton’s marriage that left me feeling it had only skimmed the surface of these fascinating characters. But this novel took me on the deep dive into 18th-century America and the personalities of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and her famous husband, that I’d been hoping for all along.

This is a really Eliza’s novel, meticulously reconstructed from everything we know of her life, threaded together by speculation that seems as believable as fact, and as deeply grounded in the world of Revolutionary America. There’s so much here to love — it’s a novel about the American Revolution that takes the role of native Americans seriously; it’s a novel about a woman married to a famous man that treats her as a fully realized character in her own right; it’s a novel that really grapples with how a woman forgives her husband for a very public betrayal (and possibly a couple of less-public ones she only finds out about after his death) in a way that doesn’t resort to “stand by your man” type cliches. And it has a wonderful cast of beautifully developed secondary characters. Sadly, Lafayette doesn’t burst out in rapid-fire rap, but other than that, it’s just about perfect.

 

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The Taster, by V.S. Alexander

tasterThis is a classic example of a book where the subject matter was incredibly interesting (a young German woman who ends up working as one of the several tasters in Hitler’s kitchen, testing the Fuhrer’s food to make sure it’s not poisoned), but the characterization and writing style failed to grab me. This might be just a personal preference with me as a reader: lots of people seem to have enjoyed the book. It certainly does offer an intriguing look, loosely based on the stories of real-life people who worked in similar roles, into the behind-the-scenes domestic world of the Third Reich — the paranoia, the danger, and the complexity of working to keep Hitler alive when one’s own loyalties might not be quite so clear.

Despite all this, I didn’t emerge as I did, say, from The Women in the Castle, with a sense that I had really been given an unexpected glimpse into the other side of WW2. For me, the writing just wasn’t vivid enough to really take me there, but I’d suggest that another reader interested in this fascinating setting might want to give the book a try for themselves, because this is the sort of thing that is very much (excuse the pun) a matter of taste.

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