Category Archives: Fiction — historical

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

halfbloodbluesIt’s always great when a bok is able to take you to a place you have never been, geographically or historically or both. Half Blood Blues does this through the voice of jazz musician Sid Griffiths, an African-American bass player who lived in Berlin as a young man in the 1930s. All was going well for Sid and his bandmates — a collection of African-Americans and Germans, with the German members including Jews and one mixed-race German — until the Nazis came to power. Decrying jazz as a degenerate influence, the new regime began shutting down jazz was played and arresting musicians who didn’t fit the “Aryan” mold. 

Though Sid narrates the story in a quirky, memorable voice filled with old-time jazzy slang, and most of his time in the novel is spent with his lifelong frenemy, the drummer Chip, the real focus of the story is on another character. Hieronymus Falk is the one mixed-race German member of the band — the child of a white German mother and an African father, an outsider everywhere, an abomination to Nazi theories of racial purity. Hiero, the youngest member of the group and the most vulnerable, is also the most talented, a phenomenal trumpeter who wins the attention of Louis Armstrong. When those of the band members who haven’t yet been arrested are forced to flee Berlin for Paris, personal tensions and jealousies among the band members come to a head as that city falls to the invading German army.

The story is being narrated in flashbacks from the perspective of 1992, when Sid and Chip are guests at the premier of a documentary about Hiero’s life and music. The opportunity to revisit the past reveals long-hidden secrets and lies. While there were a few plot points in this novel that didn’t entirely hold together for me story-wise, it was an beautifully-drawn glimpse into a place and time rarely visited in fiction.

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Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, by Stephen O’Connor

jeffersonSally Hemings, the enslaved woman owned by Thomas Jefferson who was also his sister-in-law and probably the mother of four of his children, is a fascinating historical character. She fascinates me because she is a woman about whom very little is known, who lived out her life in close proximity and almost certainly in a sexual relationship with a man about whom we know a great deal — and that relationship colours and changes everything we know, or think we know, about Jefferson. Jefferson’s stance on slavery –he was theoretically opposed to it, yet owned hundreds of slaves and freed almost none of them within his lifetime (almost all those he did free were members of the Hemings family, including Sally’s children) — already makes him a complicated historical figure. The personal aspect of his relationship with Sally (who is sometimes referred to as his “slave mistress,” a problematic term as it suggests a relationship that is at once both consensual and non-consensual) only makes for more fertile ground for a novelist who can go in imagination where historians are not able to tread.

I read Barbara Chase-Riboud’s 1979 novel Sally Hemings many years ago, and of course was intrigued by Stephen O’Connor’s recent re-imagining of the story when it appeared last year. O’Connor’s novel is weighty, ingenious, beautifully written and, like the historical relationship it depicts, problematic and controversial. I loved it, but I’m also well aware of its limitations.

The structure of the novel itself is interesting. The bulk of it is made up of very short chapters depicting scenes from Jefferson’s and Hemings’ lives told in a fairly straightforward historical-fiction style, in the third person omniscient voice. In between these scenes are excerpts from an imagined first-person narrative by Hemings in which she tells her own version of the story and relates her feelings in her own words. There are also short segments from actual historical narratives of the time, including a memoir by one of the Hemings’ (and likely Jefferson’s) sons, Madison Hemings, short expository pieces in the author’s voice giving additional historical background, and weirder, more postmodern vignettes in which the author imagines various afterlives for Jefferson and Hemings. In one, Thomas Jefferson glimpses Sally Hemings on a subway; in another, he’s being tortured in a particularly grim version of Hell by a sadistic prison guard; in yet another, Jefferson (who died a century before the earliest modern feature films) watches a movie about his own life; in yet another, Jefferson and Hemings together visit a museum exhibit that explores their relationship. Some of these vignettes are more successful than others; there were places where I found myself wondering what they added to the overall story, but some are insightful and beautifully crafted. I can see why the author wanted to include them.

The core historical narrative — the story that unfolds through the third-person narrator interspersed with the imagined first-person voice of Hemings herself — presents two complex individuals in a complicated relationship. In this portrayal, Hemings does develop some tender feelings towards Jefferson over the years of their sexual relationship, but her feelings are never free of resentment and always overshadowed by the overwhelming fact of her (and her family’s) enslavement. It’s clear from the beginning of the relationship, when Hemings is sixteen and Jefferson is her forty-six-year-old owner, that there is nothing remotely consensual about this relationship. But it is also not straightforwardly depicted as rape. O’Connor’s Jefferson has romantic feelings about Hemings and almost courts her, while at the same time never imagining her as his equal in any real way. Sally Hemings, meanwhile, is both repelled and attracted by Jefferson. She believes she “could have said no,” yet questions that belief from various angles over the years as their relationship continues, and leads the reader to question it too.

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The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom

kitchenhouseI’d been hearing about this book for awhile, so it was good to finally get to read it. Set in the late 1790s-early 1800s in Virginia, this novel explores slavery from an unusual perspective. The main character, Lavinia, is a white girl, an Irish orphan who is raised among the slaves of Captain Pyke, the owner of Tall Oaks plantation. Because of her status both as an orphan and an indentured servant, she sees the black slaves with whom she lives as her family, calling Mae and George “Mama” and “Papa,” and thinking of the twins Fanny and Beattie as her sisters. Yet the colour of her skin means that as she grows older, the Pyke family begins to see Lavinia as being more like one of them, and opportunities begin to open for her that are closed to the people she thinks of as her family.

This novel does what seemed to me to be a really good job of exploring the complicated dynamics of plantation slaves and their masters through the eyes of someone who is both an insider and an outsider in both the black and white worlds. Complicating these dynamics, and well explored in the book, is the fact that skin colour is not actually a reliable way to distinguish between these people, as so many of the slaves were in fact more than half-white as a result of multiple generations of master-slave rape. Many of the women in the novel are forced to accept that bearing the master’s babies, and seeing those children — in some cases as “white” as their fathers — raised as slaves, is simply part of the burden of slavery. What really makes the difference is not the actual colour of a person’s skin but whether he or she is designated “white” or “Negro” by society. The complex web of a biological family in which some members of the family own others as property is well explored here.

This book did have its drawbacks — I found the writing style a little too straightforward sometimes, in much the same way as I’ve complained about Ken Follett’s writing: everything on the table and not enough subtlety in dialogue or character development. At least one major choice by a character has a huge impact on the plot and doesn’t seem to me to be in character or sufficiently well motivated, and the ending was resolved a bit too neatly for my liking. But these are largely matters of personal taste, and the novel’s success makes it clear that many, many readers did not find these things to be a problem at all. Certainly if you’re interested in a white writer’s view of slavery through a unique character perspective, you will want to pick up The Kitchen House.

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The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

buriedgiantThis was a strange and engrossing book which I read quickly, anxious to find out how it would all come together. I’ve seen people online complain that it’s very different from Ishiguro’s other novels, but as this is the first of his I’ve read I have no basis of comparison. I found it odd and haunting, a bit like the aftermath of reading a Neil Gaiman novel.

The Buried Giant starts out as if it’s going to be historical fiction — it’s set in post-Roman Britain, with an elderly Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who are going on a journey and along the way stop at a Saxon village. But it quickly becomes apparent this novel is more fantasy or fairy-tale than historical fiction. There are ogres and pixies as well as Britons and Saxons in the land; there’s a sleeping dragon; there are characters who still vividly remember King Arthur. 

Stranger than any of these is what Axl and Beatrice refer to as “the mist”: a mysterious forgetfulness that afflicts not just the two of them, but everyone in their village and most of the people they encounter along the way. It’s as though everyone in this world has a touch of amnesia: nobody can remember their own past clearly, and events from even earlier the same day become hazy and hard to grasp as soon as they’re over. Axl and Beatrice are trying to find their son, whom they barely remember — and of course, they can’t clearly remember how to find him or where he is now, either.

It seems obvious not only that this strange forgetfulness must have a magical cause and a magical cure (it does), but also that stopping it would be a good thing. Everyone wants to get their memories back, don’t they? Except that as the story unfolds, we begin to question this assumption. Memories are double-edged swords — not just for individuals like Axl and Beatrice, who wonder if their love would be as true if they could recall every quarrel they’ve ever had — but for nations. If we forgot old enemies and what they did to us, could we live at peace? Does memory inevitably lead to strife and revenge? These two threads — the personal and the broader social context — weave throughout the theme of memory as Axl and Beatrice’s quest comes to a poignant end. While this book may not be typical of Ishiguro’s work, here he beautifully integrates history, myth and fantasy to create a memorable meditation on love, loss and memory.


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In the Name of the Family, by Sarah Dunant

nameofthefamilyIn my last review, of Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young NeroI talked about how I love it when writers take unpopular historical characters and tell the story from their point of view. Sarah Dunant did this beautifully with the Borgias in her 2013 novel Blood and BeautyHere she continues the story from the time of Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este, up till Pope Alexander’s death, which spelled the ruin of Cesare Borgia’s plans to rule most of Italy. In addition to Cesare, Lucrezia, and the Pope, Dunant has added a fourth viewpoint character here: Florentine diplomat Niccolo Macchiavelli, who is fascinated by Cesare Borgia and will eventually immortalize him in his book The Prince.

The end of the story (concluding with a “ten years later” epilogue that recounts what happens to Cesare and Lucrezia in the decade after their father’s death) is as satisfying as the first volume was, and the much-maligned Borgias step out of history and into fiction as fully-fleshed-out, real people — real people who, for the most part, did terrible things (not Lucrezia so much with the terrible things) — but had reasons that made sense to them for doing so. The unfolding story of Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este was my favourite part of this book, and ends with a wonderful scene when Lucrezia learns of her beloved father’s death. Renaissance Italy with all its blood and beauty comes alive in these two novels; seldom have I seen historical fiction written better than this.

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The Confessions of Young Nero, by Margaret George

youngneroTo me, one of the most fascinating things that a writer of historical fiction can do is take a hated historical character, one whom most readers assume is the villain of the piece, and tell the story from his or her point of view, showing how that person’s “villainous” acts were perfectly justifiable according to their own values. My favourite examples of this are of course Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, about Thomas Cromwell, Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, about Richard III, Philippa Gregory’s The Red Queen, about Margaret Beaufort, and Margaret George’s own stunning The Autobiography of Henry VIII. In some cases, these characters emerge more as heroes than as villains due to reconsideration of the evidence and the biased nature of the popular view of them. (This is certainly true of The Sunne in Splendour’s view of Richard III). In other cases, we simply understand the person better in the context of his or her own times and values, and recognize that while they did things that we would definitely consider repugnant, they had their own reasons and ways of justifying those actions to themselves.

In tackling Roman emperor Nero, Margaret George has picked a character with a particularly unsavoury reputation, and she’s doing a bit of both here — to some extent, she’s trying to rehabilitate him by showing that not all the terrible acts attributed to him are likely to have been things he actually did. There was (as with Richard III) a very concerted effort made by contemporaries and immediate successors to smear his name after his death. But she also shows how some of the things Nero actually did do — such as murdering his mother, Agrippina — while definitely morally troubling (even to Nero himself) also seemed justifiable in the context of his reign.

This is the first of a planned two(?) books on Nero, and I found it a very engaging read. I don’t know if Margaret George will ever do as great a job on any historical character as she did on Henry VIII — the Autobiography is still the pinnacle of her work, to me — but I enjoyed getting into Nero’s world, seeing it from his perspective, as imagined by George. I will definitely be picking up the second volume when it comes out.

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Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin

artofdeathMistress of the Art of Death is the first in a series of four medieval mystery novels about that rarest of creatures, a medieval woman doctor. Trained at the University of Salerno, Italy, Adelia finds herself on a mission in Henry II’s England, where the Jewish community in the town of Cambridge is suspected of being behind a series of child murders. Adelia is a forensic expert, a “mistress of the art of death,” but she has to conceal her knowledge and pretend to be only an aide and translator to her Moorish servant, who masquerades as the real doctor, since no-one in twelfth-century England can wrap their heads around a woman physician. 

The research into the time period is well done and feels authentic, though Adelia is perhaps a little too much of a “woman ahead of her time” to be entirely believable. Her story is continued in three further books, of which I read the next one, The Serpent’s Tale. I enjoyed both books, but wasn’t so engrossed that I felt I had to go on and read the rest, though I probably will do so eventually, when I feel like travelling back to the 1100s again.

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