Category Archives: Fiction — historical

Lost in September, by Kathleen Winter

lostinseptemberKathleen Winter’s Lost in September both is, and isn’t, a novel about General James Wolfe, the English commander who died in battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 after securing victory for England over the forces of New France, more or less ensuring that Canada would be an English-speaking country with a large and unhappy French minority for the next few centuries. It’s a novel about Wolfe, narrated through the eyes and voice of a young man in modern-day Montreal who may be … the ghost of James Wolfe? A time-travelling James Wolfe? A reincarnation of James Wolfe? A traumatized veteran of the Afghanistan war who just happens to be fascinated with and haunted by James Wolfe?

None of this is clear for much of the book, nor does it need to be. The multilayered memories of James Wolfe and Jimmy Blanchard weave in and out of one another on a surreal quest rooted in very real and vivid detail. It’s a quest that ranges from Montreal to Quebec City to the Gaspe Peninsula, a quest to understand the mind and motives of a long-dead man as well as to uncover the life and purpose of one who is still living.

This novel was weird, but I loved how it immersed me in its mystery and plunged me into the troubled mind of its narrator. The shambling, shamanic quest builds to a poignant conclusion with the reminder that whether in the eighteenth or twenty-first centuries, war is brutal and leaves men shattered in its wake. Some die “heroically” on the battlefield; some live on to try to rebuild their lives afterwards. This is a story of both kinds of men in one man, and it’s fascinating and eerie and beautiful.

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The Revolution of Marina M., by Janet Fitch

marinaJanet Fitch’s novel The Revolution of Marina M., spotted at random on a bookstore shelf (so I totally judged a book by its cover) swept me away into the world of the Russian Revolution as seen through the eyes of a young middle-class Russian girl, stepping into adulthood in St. Petersburg just as her city and her country is about to be plunged into unimaginable changes.

Marina Makarova is the same age as the century, turning 17 in 1917. She’s a poet, the daughter of an Anglophile father who is immersed in the politics of First World War Russia under the Tsar. Her older brother is away fighting the Germans; her younger brother is a dreamy artist who resists their father’s efforts to make a man out of him by sending him to military school. Her mother is … complicated, as is Marina’s relationship with her. With her two best friends, Varvara and Mina, Marina explores the edges of the revolution that’s in the air; with her older brother’s friend Kolya she explores the first tastes of adult passion. Then revolution comes — first the abdication of the Tsar and the establishment of the Provisional Government, in which Marina’s father is active, then Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution which completely tears down and seeks to rebuild Russian society.

Marina’s world, too, is torn apart — her family shattered, her first love affair quickly ended and replaced by a second in which she becomes part of a circle of radical young poets and artists along with her boyfriend Genya. Meanwhile the Revolution careens along, promising a workers’ utopia but unable to provide food or clean water to the majority of St. Petersburg’s poor, and Marina’s life careens along with it, from one unexpected adventure to another.

This is an epic novel on both the personal and political levels — Marina is caught up in huge events, but the events of her personal life as she navigates family, friendship, two love affairs and a horrific brush with a violent gangster, are, if anything, even more turbulent than what’s happening in the streets of St. Petersburg. Some of the disasters Marina faces are of her own making — she makes terrible choices about men at least three times in the novel when, the second and third time, she really should know better — but she is a passionate woman led astray by what she believes, over and over, is a love she cannot resist. (She’s also still in her late teens, not a time of life best known for people making smart decisions). She is frequently a frustrating character, but also a compelling one: by the end of the novel her determination to survive, no matter what tragedies strike her personal life or the country she loves, is overwhelming.

I found this novel hard to put down, both for Marina’s personal story and for the depiction of Russia in the throes of revolution. Russia is very far from being my area of expertise so I cannot judge how accurate Fitch’s depiction of it is, but the streets of St. Petersburg during the Red Terror certainly felt real, and the layers of complexity around who supported revolution and why, what the different parties and factions were, revealed a far more intricate story than the brief summary version of the revolution that I teach my students in our overview course of 20th-century history.

The novel opens with a prologue set in the early 1930s, with an older Marina living far from Russia. As the story progressed, it ranged widely over the Russian landscape around St. Petersburg and across a wide variety of relationships and experiences for Marina — but time-wise, the story stayed focused on the revolutionary years of 1917-1919. As I drew near the end and Marina was still only 19, I began to wonder how Fitch was going to wrap up this incident-filled story and give us a hint of how Marina ends up where she does in her thirties. It seemed impossible to tie up the loose ends of her story so quickly — and sure enough, at the end of the last chapter came the fateful words: End of Book One. I’m pleased to know there’s going to be a sequel but frustrated that I have to wait to find out what happened to Marina.

For a book that gives you the feeling of being immersed in a different time and place I recommend this one very highly — even if once in awhile you want to give Marina a good kick in the pants to remind her that a guy who’s broken your heart once will definitely, definitely do it again, and also, it’s not worth risking your life for the possibility of great sex. Hopefully the second volume will reveal that Marina has learned some of these lessons.

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The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

remainsofthedayA couple of months ago, I was watching Netflix’s excellent drama The Crown and remarked to my husband, “It’s quite an accomplishment to make a compelling drama about a group of people whose entire guiding principle is to show as little emotion as possible in any given situation.” If this is true about the British upper classes it is, perhaps, even more true of the servant class who traditionally made their lives of luxury possible. The ideal English butler, like the ideal English servant at any level, was envisioned as a blank slate, a person who expressed no personal opinions or wishes except to be of service. Never has this suppression of emotion been more deftly explored than in Ishiguro’s 1989 novel The Remains of Day. Although I’d often heard of the book and the 1993 movie starring Anthony Hopkins, I’d never seen the movie and had never read the novel until a couple of weeks ago.

The book is narrated in first-person by the butler, Mr. Stevens, in the 1950s. As with many of the great houses in Britain, the house in which Stevens has served for so many years is on the decline in the post-WW2 years. No longer owned by the nobleman who once employed Stevens, the house has been bought by a rich American and the staff greatly reduced. Stevens is taking his first vacation in — well, ever, really — and borrowing his employer’s car to drive to visit the former housekeeper, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), who has written him a troubling letter that causes him to re-examine their past relationship. The novel, and Stevens’s memories of the past twenty-some years, unfold throughout the one-week solitary road trip.

Using a character as emotionally repressed and unused to self-examination as Stevens as a first-person narrator is a very difficult trick that only a writer as skilled as Ishiguro could pull off. Stevens is a man so completely subsumed in his role and so hemmed in by rules and expectations that he is almost completely cut off from his own feelings, and so the reader intuits Stevens’s feelings more from what he doesn’t say than from what he does. We realize as the story unfolds that Miss Kenton was in love with Stevens and that he was attracted to her; that he grieved over the illness and death of his father; that he disapproved of his old employer’s tolerance for Nazis in the pre-WW2 years — but he never admits any of these things openly, either to himself, to other characters, or to the reader. Rather, in every case he puts his own opinions and feelings to one side to do what he feels is his duty. This devotion to duty results in a life that is, to put it kindly, emotionally stunted — and by the end of the novel, there is just a suggestion that perhaps Stevens is beginning to realize this. Whether he has the capacity to live any differently in what remains of his day, or whether he will remain forever trapped by the image of the perfect English butler, is a question left unanswered. This is a masterful character study and left me far more moved than I expected to be.

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The Way of Beauty, by Camille di Maio

wayofbeautyOne of the things that makes a piece of fiction (especially, I’d argue, historical fiction) engaging and memorable, is a strong sense of place. Camille di Maio’s third novel, The Way of Beauty, especially shines in this area. It is not only a New York novel, but a novel that very specifically pays tribute to a particular Manhattan landmark, the old Penn Station built in 1910 and demolished in 1963. The novel’s main character, Vera, is the child of German immigrants growing up in poverty in the early 1900s while the station is being built — her father one of the labourers who helps dig out the underground tunnels for this new marvel of 20th century transportation. Half a century later, Vera watches as this architectural wonder is destroyed in the name of progress. Along the way she falls in love with Angelo who runs the newsstand, forms a fierce friendship with the suffragette Pearl, becomes a mother to Alice and a substitute mother to Will, and lives out her life, loves and passions in the shadow of Penn Station.

While Vera’s story, and the stories of those around her, are interesting, Penn Station is the real star of this novel, and I was fascinated after reading the book to look up some of the history about it and learn how its demolition, and the resulting protest, paved the way for New York City to rethink its treatment of historic buildings and halt the process of tearing down landmarks in the name of progress. A good book should feel like it is deeply rooted in a real place and time, and Vera’s story in The Way of Beauty certainly achieves that.

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The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn

alicenetworkThis is a historical novel that (although the setting and subject matter were very different) reminded me a bit of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, in that I was probably two-thirds of the way through the book before I realized that some of the “fictional” characters I was reading about were not just based on real people but actually were real people. The novel deals with a WWI spy network in France organized by British intelligence but run on the ground mostly by women, including the real-life spy Louise de Bettignes, who is an important character in this novel.

The two main characters are both fictional — American girl Charlie who goes to England and France in 1947 in hopes of finding out what happened to her French cousin who disappeared during the war, and Eve Gardiner, the embittered ex-spy who unwillingly helps Charlie in her quest. There’s a lot going on in this novel — an unplanned pregnancy (Charlie’s) in an era when wealthy girls from good families took care of such problems by visiting a clinic in Switzerland; a romance with a handsome Scottish ex-convict; the true fate of Charlie’s cousin Rose. But all these events, unfolding in 1947, are only a backdrop for the real story told through Eve’s memories: the story of a group of women in a German-occupied region of France during the First World War, risking their lives to pass secrets to the British and French. It’s a compelling and little-known piece of history, and The Alice Network does a good job of telling it.

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The Secret Wife, by Gill Paul

secretwifeAlmost ten years ago I read Carolly Erickson’s novel The Tsarina’s Daughterwhich was built around the idea that the Grand Duchess Tatiana, one of the four daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, might have escaped her family’s massacre and survived. The recent release The Secret Life is based on the same premise, interwoven with the story of a 21st-century British woman who has no idea that her own family tree is intertwined with the tragic story of the Romanovs.

Unlike The Tsarina’s Daughter, this novel is told not from Tatiana’s own point of view but from that of Dmitri, one of the real-life men (an army officer from a noble family) whose name was romantically linked with Tatiana’s. History records that the real Dmitri died not long after Tatiana and all her family were executed, but in The Secret Wife Gill Paul imagines an interesting and complicated survival story for both of them. This is no simple romance where Dmitri magically spirits Tatiana away and they ride off into the Russian sunset to live happily ever after — rather, it’s a story about their love affair but also about the lives they build for themselves after the revolution, after Russia — and about the possibility that you can encounter more than one kind of love in a lifetime. 

Against the backdrop of this epic love story, the contemporary story of Kitty Fisher, who renovates her great-grandfather’s abandoned cottage while trying to decide whether to forgive her husband’s infidelity, may seem a bit bland by comparison, but it was interesting enough to keep me reading, although my main interest was always in the Dmitri/Tatiana story. Do they get to live happily ever after? You’ll have to read the book and decide — and then remember that it’s all fiction, and all the Romanovs definitely got shot by the Bolsheviks.

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Goodbye from London, by Jennifer Robson

goodnightfromlondonGoodbye From London explores the experience of am American woman reporter stationed in London during the Second World War. Beginning during the London Blitz, Ruby’s time in London stretches out to encompass the entire war and even brings her to France in the wake of the D-Day invasion. Along the way, she not only experiences and reports on the reality of war on the home front, but also finds her own identity (not to mention, as you might guess from the cover, true love). While this novel wasn’t as emotionally intense as some WW2 books I’ve read recently, it did give a good overview of the British experience from the unique experience of a woman journalist, and it made me want to learn more about real female war correspondents in that era.

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