Good historical fiction tends to emphasize the “fiction” over the “historical,” and that’s as it should be. Fiction is a tricky art after all, and creGood historical fiction tends to emphasize the “fiction” over the “historical,” and that’s as it should be. Fiction is a tricky art after all, and creating a viable novel—especially one whose main characters are well-known historical figures—requires acknowledging that factual material must sometimes take a backseat to the rigorous demands of good dramatic storytelling.
One of the things that quality historical fiction can do is to add to our understanding of history by coming at it from fresh angles. By offering a vicarious emotional experience of history that would be impossible to construct from the facts alone, a historical novel can give us new insights into the past, hinting at the sort of deeper truth that—along with entertainment value and the cathartic immersiveness—gives fiction its standing as an art form.
I found myself revising my opinion of Love and Ruin as I read on. At first (no doubt subconsciously prompted by the commercial-looking cover art) I was prepared to enjoy the novel as a light entertainment with a setting and characters I find intrinsically fascinating. By the final page though, I found myself touched and moved in ways that one associates with enduring literature. Yes, this novel is that good.
McLain has done her research. She can write her way out of any sentence, and has a wonderfully light touch. For me, the clear and slightly old-fashioned narrative voice was a plausible stand-in for that of Martha Gellhorn, a fascinating character who wrote quite a bit herself.
Even more impressively, Love and Ruin succeeds in pulling off that most difficult and rewarding of historical fiction tricks: it gives us deeper emotional access into true characters with whom we’re already familiar. It’s a kind of access that feels not only plausible but deeply personal, providing meaningful insight into the dynamics underlying the famous literary marriage that is the novel’s main subject. Love and Ruin increased my appreciation not only for Gellhorn but for Hemingway himself—and this was a very pleasant surprise.
In sum, if the subject matter interests you at all, I urge you not to miss this gripping, immersive, and deeply “true” novel....more
First person present tense is a challenging and one might even say problematic point of view for any novel, and especially for historical fiction. ForFirst person present tense is a challenging and one might even say problematic point of view for any novel, and especially for historical fiction. For scenes of moment-to-moment immediacy and for moments of special intensity, when what we might call “narrative memory” has yet to be established, it can work well. But it doesn’t seem to be the best perspective for filling the more abundant canvas of an historical novel.
We can see this clearly in Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever, which is a good read, and an otherwise well-structured narrative, that’s marred by the inconsistency, implausibility, and general awkwardness of its point of view. Let’s take a look at the opening:
“We are eating dinner, my husband and I. A shred of leek is caught in his beard. I watch it move up and down as he chews; it is like an insect caught in the grass. I watch it idly for I am a young woman and live simply, in the present.”
Note the nice sense of immediacy, which Moggach makes explicit in this passage: no past, no future, just the present moment. But this brings up one of the things about first person present that makes it problematic. The “I” voice sounds strange to our ears, because something about the first person gives us the presumption of an audience. Who exactly is the “I” addressing here?
This is an absolutely fascinating, highly readable historical narrative about a black family in eighteenth century Vermont and western Massachusetts.This is an absolutely fascinating, highly readable historical narrative about a black family in eighteenth century Vermont and western Massachusetts. The story of Bijah, Lucy, and their children is unforgettable, both inspiring and sad. I learned a great deal, not only about the deep history of the part of the world in which I live, but also about some of the surprising and previously hidden truths about slavery, freedom, racism, progressivism, and community in early New England. This beautiful and enriching book gets my highest recommendation. ...more
Really enjoyed this one. A harrowing, unforgettable, and vastly entertaining insiders' guide to the lives of the heirs of the House of Caesar. HighlyReally enjoyed this one. A harrowing, unforgettable, and vastly entertaining insiders' guide to the lives of the heirs of the House of Caesar. Highly informative, great characters, never a dull moment—and you can see how it paved the way for other classic novelists of historical fiction, including Mary Renault and Gore Vidal.
Plenty of contemporary echoes, too, especially in Graves' indelible portrait of Caligula, a physical coward who loved pomp and military parades, a vain, cruel ruler wholly lacking in empathy, who surrounded himself with cowering yes-men and liked to play them against each another. A man who believed himself a literal god but also feared madness—and was mad. If you've ever thought about reading this one—and even if you've already seen the famous PBS series—do it. You won't regret it!...more
This novel is a western literary historical in the category of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, Philipp Meyer’This novel is a western literary historical in the category of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, Philipp Meyer’s The Son, and Richard Bausch’s Far As the Eye Can See. That’s distinguished company. It’s also literary territory that has been overwhelmingly dominated by male writers, so it’s a keen pleasure to find that News of the World deserves every one of the accolades it has received, including having been chosen as a finalist for National Book Award.
Jiles is especially deft at what you might call "historical world building." Writers or anyone else with an interest in this topic can read more here: http://bit.ly/2DC59em...more
Joseph Monninger is a master storyteller with an understated and cumulatively beautiful prose style. His latest, Game Change, is one of the best sportJoseph Monninger is a master storyteller with an understated and cumulatively beautiful prose style. His latest, Game Change, is one of the best sports novels I’ve ever read. It’s one of the best young adult novels too—but I want to point out that it transcends both categories: it’s bigger than simply a sports novel or a young adult novel. It’s a gripping, profound, and deeply moving novel about friendship, family loyalty, and what it means to be alive.
Game Change is a page-turner, but it’s also one that takes you by surprise in subtle ways. It serves up a vivid portrait of small-town New Hampshire peopled by characters as interesting and sympathetic as any you’ll find in fiction. Characters that feel like your friends. For me, this was one of those rare novels that I was sorry to finish. It left tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, and at the same time it left me with the exhilarated sense of having been immeasurably enriched and enlarged by the reading experience. What more can you ask?
If you’re expecting a straightforward novel of football triumph, you may be disappointed by this book. But if you allow yourself to read it with an open heart, you’ll reap rewards that can only be offered by great and enduring works of literature. Highly, highly recommended. ...more