Category Archives: Fiction — historical

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

donotsayThis is the best book I’ve read so far this year. Told from the perspective of a Chinese-Canadian woman learning of her late father’s life in China during the cultural revolution, it is a riveting voyage to a place and time I didn’t know much about. 

As a young girl, Marie loses her father when he leaves their family to return to China, then takes his own life in Hong Kong. Soon after that trauma, Marie’s mother offers shelter to Ai-Ming, a girl about ten years older than Marie, whose father was close friends with Marie’s father. The student protests in Tienanmen Square have recently ended and Ai-Ming, who was involved in the protests, has fled China for Canada. During the months she stays with Marie’s family, she tells the younger girl stories of their fathers’ youth in China, the music that bound them both together at the Conservatory, and a mysterious, hand-copied book that has been copied and distributed down through three generations of Ai-Ming’s family.

The narrator then takes us into the heart of these stories, not filtered through Ai-Ming’s and Marie’s perspectives but through the points of view of the people who actually lived them — Big Mother Knife, Ba Lute, Swirl, Wen the Dreamer, who live through the Japanese invasion during the Second World War and are proud to be part of the new Communist China post-war, until Mao Zedong’s dream turns against them. Their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, whose lives are forever changed when their musical careers bring them into contact with Kai (future father of the narrator Marie). These three young people, Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai, as young artists, are targets of the Cultural Revolution, and the brutality of that revolution tears all three lives apart. The horrors of living under a totalitarian regime are depicted here with chilling precision, and the writing is beautiful. This novel won both the Governor General’s award for fiction and the Giller Prize, and the awards were richly deserved.


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The Forbidden Queen, by Anne O’Brien

forbiddenqueenI always love it when I stumble across a historical novel about a character I know about from history but haven’t read about in fiction before. Such is The Forbidden Queen, a novel about Katherine of Valois, the French princess who was so briefly wed to war-hero-king Henry V of England before he inconviently died of dysentry. Katherine, still a young girl, was left dowager queen to a baby king in a country she barely knew, and then shocked everyone by marrying a Welsh servant, Owen Tudor. Henry’s untimely death almost certainly caused the Wars of the Roses due to factions and conflicts that grew up during the childhood and youth of his son, Henry VI; Katherine unwittingly provided the dynastic line that would end those wars when her grandson, Henry Tudor, ascended the throne was Henry VII. Katherine was long dead before any of that happened; she had a short life but it was certainly action-packed. If nothing else, the story of how a queen wound up in bed with her household steward would have to make for a good romantic plot.

And indeed it does. I didn’t realize before I picked up this book that it was published under Harlequin’s “Mira” historical line, and I might have been prejudiced against it if I had seen the imprint. I tend to avoid genre romance because they can be predictable and many (not all) are poorly written, though predictability is less of a concern with historical novels based on real people; the author does, after all, have to stick to the known facts of Katherine’s life. Fortunately, O’Brien, who I hadn’t read before, turns out to be a good writer. While they are some predictably romance-novel flourishes during Katherine and Owen’s scenes together, the main focus is on Katherine’s character development from a meek princess who is terrified to stand up for herself to a woman who defies the royal Council to marry the man she loves and win back his legal rights. It’s a great story and Anne O’Brien does a good job telling it. 

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Yiddish for Pirates, by Gary Barwin

yiddishI wanted to love this book a lot more than I did, especially since it was the only book anyone gave me for Christmas and I got not one but two copies of it. It’s crazy, inventive, witty and definitely a novel for anyone who loves playing with words — but in the end, I think all the wordplay and some of the narrative tricks kept me a little distanced from really getting involved with the characters.

It’s the story of Aaron, a talking (really talking, not just mimicking) parrot, who narrates the story of Moishe, the Jewish boy on whose shoulder he perches. Moishe embarks on a series of adventures and misadventures in fiftenth-century Spain, on the high seas, and in the New World, where he sails with Columbus. There’s a lot of humour to their adventures as narrated by the wisecracking Aaron who sprinkles his story liberally with Yiddish word and phrases, anachronisms, and puns in several languages. But there’s also a darkness that follows Moishe and all his travelling companions, Jews expelled from Spain under the shadow of the Inquisition.

The book is incredibly inventive and a delight for those who love wordplay, but after Moishe and Aaron left Spain and travelled to the New World I found the story less compelling than when they were back in Spain. Also, I found that using the parrot as narrator kept me distanced from the human characters, so that I never got quite as involved in Moishe’s story as I’d hoped to. The book certainly is brilliantly written and truly unique, but it wasn’t my most engrossing read of the year so far.

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Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford

goldenhillGolden Hill is a beautifully written, absolutely engaging, wonderful historical novel set in New York in the autumn of 1746. A young man named Richard Smith arrives in town with a note from an English bank authorizing him to withdraw from a New York financial house more money than anyone has on hand in the colony at that point. Smith has to wait in New York for three months until his bank note can be honoured — and, for reasons of his own, he has to keep his purpose, and what he intends to do with the money, entirely to himself while he waits.

This is not easy, in a town of just 7000 people where everyone is intensely interested in everyone’s business, and political tensions divide the colonists into various camps. Everyone has a theory about what Smith is up to, and the author manages the difficult trick of making Smith the point-of-view character in a novel with third-person limited point of view, without ever fully revealing everything Smith knows or plans.

Things spin out of control rapidly: Smith makes friends and enemies, falls in love, gets arrested not once but twice, fights a duel, is accused of spying, and generally disturbs everything around him. He learns a great deal himself during the process, and one of the joys  of the book is watching how much Francis Spufford allows us to see of Smith’s inner self without ever giving away all his secrets.

The other joys are the wonderful, detailed evocation of colonial New York thirty years before the Revolution, every tiny detail vivid and believable, and a lively narrative voice that would sound nearly at home among the writers of Smith’s own day, yet is completely accessible to the modern reader.

I don’t want to spoil this wonderful novel, but every review you ever read of Golden Hill will tell you there’s a big twist at the end. I’ll say that I didn’t like the twist at all. My reaction to the ending was so strong it might have ruined my enjoyment of this book, except the book is just too wonderful to be ruined, so in my head I had to mentally edit the ending to something I could live with. But lots of other people absolutely love how it ended, so your mileage may vary. If you love historical fiction, do read Golden Hill. You might, like me, be frustrated in the end, but I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

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The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel

threesistersKatherine Govier’s latest historical novel sweeps across the Canadian Rockies and the twentieth century, beginning with an ill-fated expedition out of Gateway, Alberta in 1911. A hundred years later, the purchase of the titular hotel, now run-down and neglected, drives a family to explore a tangled web of hidden stories that go right back to that 1911 journey.

This is a wonderfully evocative novel that explores a piece of Canadian history I didn’t know much about. It’s peopled with larger-than-life, vivid characters who are present in these early years of our Western provinces and National Parks. I found it difficult to adjust to the fact that early in the novel the reader is wrenched away from a point of view character to whom I, at least, had become quite attached — I kept wanting to get back to her perspective, and it took some time to accept that, like the rest of the novel’s characters, there were mysteries I would never get to solve and stories I would never definitively learn the end of. 

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The Memory of Us, by Camille di Maio

memoryofusThe Memory of Us is a historical novel loosely inspired by the Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby. Beginning in late 1930s Liverpool, the novel tells the story of Julianne Westcott and Kyle McCarthy, divided by religion and social class but united by love. Their star-crossed romance unfolds over several decades as Kyle’s vocation to become  a Catholic priest, and Julianne’s family’s desire for her to make a socially advantageous marriage to a wealthy man, clash with the obvious attraction between the two. Then war intervenes and takes both their lives in a direction no-one — including this reader — expects.

I found the characters and their love story compelling, believable and (sometimes) sad. The historical setting was a bit more uneven for me. I know the author is a devout Catholic and I feel that her knowledge of chuch culture, even in another country and era, rang true. However, she’s also a modern American woman, and often the voice that comes through — whether it’s Julianne’s voice as a first-person narrator, or the voices of various characters in dialogue — sounds more like a modern American voice than like an Englishwoman of the 1930s. Dialogue in historical fiction is very hard to do correctly; all of us writers who attempt to travel to the past struggle with it. Though I felt the dialogue was the weakest point in The Memory of Us, it didn’t stop me from reading the novel in a couple of sittings and getting very immersed in the characters and their story. I’m expecting more historical fiction from Camille DiMaio in future and I will definitely be checking out her other work.


Filed under Fiction -- historical

The Witches of New York, by Ami McKay

witchesWhen I think about witches in history and historical fiction, I think, of course, of the Salem witch trials, and of women of that era in both Europe and the New World accused of witchcraft — often for nothing more sinister than living alone, or having a working knowledge of herbal medicine. Ami McKay’s new novel takes us into witches in a different world — 1890s New York City, where women’s ancient knowledge intersects with the fascination for spiritualism in late 19th-century New York to produce a trio of memorable women, the titular witches of New York.

Adelaide is a medium who passes on messages from the dead; she shares a storefront and living quarters with Eleanor, who practices traditional “witch” knowledge handed down from her mother. Into their lives, in response to a newspaper ad, comes young Beatrice, new to the city and looking for adventure, who turns out to have the abilit to see dead people. Together the three women face prejudice and misunderstanding and try to forge out a tiny space for witches in a rapidly modernizing world. 

I categorized this book both as historical fiction but also as fantasy, since it has elements that I would describe as a sort of urban fantasy — that is, the “witchcraft” elements of the story are real within the world of the story, so inexplicable and mysterious things do occur, and are not explained away rationally. This requires the reader to suspend disbelief, entering into the world of the story’s characters and believing what they believe.

All three women are engaging, well-drawn characters (Adelaide has been previously introduced to us under another name, Moth, as a young girl in McKay’s novel The Virgin Cure). They are survivors, strong and indomitable in world that wants to force women into a more compliant mold. Characters and setting are the strengths of this story — the plot, I thought, stumbled in a few places, perhaps because there are many characters in addition to the three witches and many plot threads, some of which seemed to me to be resolved a little too easily and others left dangling without any resolution at all. In spite of these dropped threads, the overall tapestry of this story was rich and enjoyable.

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