Category Archives: Fiction — historical

The Splendor Before the Dark, by Margaret George

splendorThis novel is the sequel to The Confessions of Young Nero, taking his story from the defining moment of his life — the great fire of Rome — to his early death. As with the previous book, George debunks some of the myths about Nero (no, he didn’t fiddle while Rome burned, nor did he likely kick his pregnant wife to death), but doesn’t shy away from some of the bad things he did do, while still managing to create a believable and, to some degree, sympathetic portrayal of a complex man who was far from perfect as an emperor, but was certainly slandered by enemies during his life and after his death.

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Tombland, by C.J. Sansom

tomblandIt’s been an amazing journey through seven novels with Matthew Shardlake, the Tudor lawyer who is also my favourite detective in historical fiction since Brother Cadfael. I’ve read all six of the previous books, although I’ve just realized in looking back that I didn’t write reviews of all of them, which is often the case with books in a series. However, Tombland may well turn out to be the final Shardlake novel, so it’s worth its own review.

Shardlake started the series back in Dissolution as an ardent Protestant reformer working for Thomas Cromwell. The “dissolution” of that title was Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries after his break with Rome, and after Shardlake is sent to help with closing down one particular monastery (and, of course, solve a mystery while he’s there), he emerges with his faith shaken, no longer sure what he believes.

After several years of adventures, the older Shardlake (he’s 47 and white-haired in Tombland) is still unsure what he believes about God and the church, but he’s learned to be extremely wary of men in power. Old King Henry is dead, as is Queen Catherine Parr, whom Shardlake served with great devotion. Now he works for the Lady Elizabeth, who nobody imagines will be the future queen, during the short reign of her brother Edward VI. Shardlake goes to Norfolk on a commission for Elizabeth, investigating a distant relative of hers who has been accused of murdering his wife. While there, he becomes caught up in a massive peasant revolt and finds himself, once again, questioning his loyalties at the same time as he solves the mystery.

Shardlake is forever an outsider — physically disabled, mentally brilliant; poised between social classes as a lawyer risen to “gentleman” status from humble roots; a man deeply devoted to his friends but without love or a family of his own. All of those qualities are at their keenest in Tombland, throughout the vividly described weeks when he is half-prisoner, half-supporter in the rebel camp outside Norwich. (For readers who, like me, love a good Afterword at the end of a historical novel explaining the background, there’s a meaty 50-page essay discussing the revolt in great detail at the end of Tombland).

But also, at the end of Tombland, there’s Shardlake — once again alone, to some degree, and poised as always between worlds, a skeptic in a world of fervent believers. Before this book came out, the extremely private C.J. Sansom revealed that he has terminal cancer, which has led most readers to suspect that this will likely be the last Shardlake book. While Sansom is not the type of writer and Shardlake not the type of character to leave everything tied up neatly with a bow at the end, Tombland’s bittersweet ending leaves the reader with a little hope for Shardlake’s later years, as well as enough interesting loose ends that, if the author should be granted a few more years and another book, there’s always more mysteries to be solved.

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My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

Layout 1I’ve heard people raving about these books for years (My Brilliant Friend is the first of four novels) so finally decided to check the first one out. The books tell the story of two young women growing up in a poor neighbourhood in 1950s Naples. Elena, the first person narrator, is both fascinated and a little scared of the tough and fearless Lena, who becomes both her best friend and her rival.

The neighbourhood in which the girls grow up is portrayed in starkly unsentimental terms: it is a harsh world, full of violence. The novel follows the two girls from age six to sixteen, when they stand on the brink of womanhood. Elena’s path out of the neighbourhood will be through education; Lena, the more intelligent of the two but unable to get further education, is married to a neighbour at sixteen.

While I recognize that the book is well-written, the two main characters didn’t engage me enough to want to read three more books about them. (I did pick up a copy of the last book and flip to the end to see how the saga ends). I don’t know if this is partly a factor of reading a novel in translation — I often find novels translated into English feel a little flat and distant to me, the language less immediate and vivid than it would be if I were able to read it in the author’s own language. That’s probably a shortcoming in me as a reader, but it does make it impossible for me to evaluate if I would have cared more about these characters if I’d been able to read Italian. Plenty of English speaking readers love these novels, though, so it might just be that these are not the books for me.

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Malinche, by Laura Esquivel

malincheThis book was such a disappointment because it had such a fascinating premise and it was about a character I really wanted to learn about, but something in the way it was written just kept me from getting absorbed in it the way I hoped to be.

It’s the story of Mallinalli, the indigenous woman who acted as translator for Cortez and was key to helping him overthrow the Aztec empire. She was also Cortez’s — lover? sex slave? not sure — so of course there’s a lot of rich ground there for exploring Mallinalli’s motivations, her relationship with Cortez and with the Aztecs. However, Esquivel’s style of writing kept me so distant from Mallinalli and her thoughts and feelings that I never felt I really understood what was going on or why she acted as she did. Very disappointing for something that had so much potential originally.

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The Two-Family House, by Lynda Cohen Loigman

twofamilyhouseThis was a quick read for me and a very engaging one. The premise is simple: two brothers live with their wives and children in a two-apartment house in Brooklyn, New York in the 1940s. Helen and Abe, with their family of all boys, live upstairs; Rose and Mort, who have all girls, live downstairs. When both women get pregnant at the same time, naturally Helen is hoping for a girl while Rose hopes to finally have a daughter. And when they both go into labour on the same night, in the middle of a snowstorm while both husbands are away and no-one is available to attend the birth but a midwife — well, the stage is set for a twist you can almost certainly anticipate.

What might be harder to anticipate is how that twist — conceived of in a single rash moment by one of the two mothers, agreed to tacitly by the other — plays out over the next two decades of both family’s lives, both couples’ marriages, and the lives of the two children born that night as well as their siblings. What might seem like a very contrived set-up leads to a fascinating exploration of love, jealously, rich character development and family dynamics. I found this book hard to put down.

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We Were the Lucky Ones, by Georgia Hunter

luckyonesThis is probably the only time I’ve ever hesitated over whether to class a book as “historical fiction” or “non-fiction.” I went with historical fiction because the book clearly follows the conventions of that genre: it gives us the inner thoughts, private conversations, and other tiny details a writer of non-fiction could never really know, vividly bringing the story of the Kurc family to life as only a good piece of fiction can. But as the Author’s Note at the end makes clear, this book is not just “based on a true story”: it is an amazing true story, built on the author’s meticulous research into the experiences of her grandfather’s Polish- Jewish family during WW2.

The story begins in the spring of 1939. The Kurc family are middle-class, assimilated Polish Jews living in the city of Radom. The parents, Sol and Nechuma, are in their early 50s, and they have five grown children: Genek, Mila, Halina, Jakob and Addy. Two of the children are married, one (Mila) with a child of her own; all except for Addy live near their parents’ home in Radom. Addy, a musician and engineer, is living and working in France but planning to come home for Passover as usual, when anti-Jewish sentiment in Poland and the growing thread from Nazi Germany leads his mother to suggest he stay in France for the holiday. Little does Addy know it will be nearly 10 years before he sees any of his family members again.

The story traces the experiences of each of the five Kurc children, their parents and their partners, throughout the years of horrific suffering that follow. Some parts of the story — as Jews are forced out of their homes, into ghettos, forced into cattle cars, taken to unknown and sinister destinations from which no-one returns — are familiar. Other parts will be new to anyone who hasn’t made a specific study of WW2 Poland: the way in which the country was divided between German and Soviet invading forces; the differences for Jews in the German and in the Soviet zones; how Jews who used fake ID papers to live under a non-Jewish identity survived; the story of “Anders’ Army” of Polish exiles who were sent by the Soviet Union to fight for the Allies in Italy. This is an amazing story of suffering, endurance, and survival.

There’s a fairly major detail that makes We Were the Lucky Ones unique among Holocaust stories, and while it’s pretty clearly telegraphed and covered in a lot of the interviews and press around the book, some people do consider it a spoiler, so I’ll spoiler-tag it here and say: if you like to remain free from any kind of spoilers and you want to read this book, you can stop reading here ….

SPOILER ZONE AHEAD!!

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Dancing in the Palm of His Hand, by Annamarie Beckel

dancingIn my current run of reading novels about women’s lives in the early 1600s (which you’ve already heard about if you’re following my reviews), Annamarie Beckel’s Dancing in the Palm of His Hand pairs in really interesting ways with Mary Sharratt’s Daughters of the Witching Hill. Both are fictional re-tellings of real historical witch trials. While Sharratt’s novel deals with the trials of 12 accused English witches, Beckel’s explores a much larger outbreak of witch-hunt hysteria in Germany during the same era, in which hundreds of accused witches were tried and (mostly) found guilty and executed.

Dancing focuses on the story of one accused witch, a widowed baker named Eva Rosen, and two of the men who have a part in questioning and judging her. One man, Wilhelm Hempelman, is conflicted by his desire for Eva, while the other, Franz Lutz, is torn by his doubts about the entire process by which these mostly poor, powerless women are tried and condemned. 

The reason I found it an interesting book to read so soon after Daughters of the Witching Hill is that Sharratt’s book allows in elements that we might consider fantastic or magical: her witches really do have familiars, and powers, of the kind rooted in the folklore of their time and place. So the accusations against them, while unjust and clearly rooted in religious and political power structures, are not entirely baseless: these women are “real witches,” in a way, and have sometimes used their powers to harm as well as to bless others. Dancing in the Palm of His Hand takes a more modern and strictly realistic approach to the witch-hunt phenomenon; the witches are clearly innocent victims of prejudice and superstition. The only hints of the supernatural occur in the “visions” (which may well be hallucinations) seen by Eva’s disabled daughter Katherina, and in a few chilling chapters narrated by the Devil … who, while much referenced and feared throughout the book, is clearly a construct of the very human fear and superstition that drives the witch trials. 

This book was an intriguing and important addition to my reading about this time period and subject matter.

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