Due to a discussion in a reading group I got to wondering about the Historical Fiction I’ve read in the past year (2014) So I did a little survey analysis since I’d never actually done a count. I read 20 historical fictions this year. The quality ranged between excellent to very poor with adjectives used rather than “scores.”
By Historical Fiction I mean fiction which is about a time period prior to the author’s memory – probably before his birth. The material has to be researched rather than simply remembered or only handed down tales from his family (memoirs are not history).
Classics are old books about old times but they’re not “Historical Fiction” of themselves. They’re more like historical artifacts or historical literature. They tell the reader an enormous amount about life at the times but the author is reporting what he sees and lives – it’s a different perspective. The author doesn’t explain a lot of things to his reader because it’s assumed the reader knows this stuff. Jane Austen and the great Russian novelists are superb resources for history buffs. Jonathan Franzen writes like that about our society and folks in the 22nd century will surely wonder what he meant by this or that. lol Charles Dickens also wrote historical fiction – A Tale of Two Cities takes place 70 years prior to Dickens’ writing about it for an audience in the 19th century which makes it also a classic. 🙂
Furthermore to be good or great Historical Fiction the social, military, economic, or political material has to be incorporated into the fiction. The setting alone including the use of artifacts from that time frame doesn’t make for good Historical Fiction. Magical Realism works if it’s the kind of oral history myth-telling of pre-industrial peoples (100 Years of Solitude by G. Garcia Marquez or Galore by Michael Crummy).
Also, to be “good” historical fiction it has to feel like the times in some ways. The author can’t be just slapping 21st century values on 14th or 18th century characters. This can probably get to be a bit tricky for the authors who are writing for 21st century readers. Examples are The Secret River, The Miniaturist, and many many others – sad because it’s a little peeve of mine.
The level of the Fiction part has to count – an historian can’t just plop some characters and a love story or a murder into his research and have any kind of good Historical Fiction because both sides of the equation count.
Here are the results of my 2014 reading – (she finally gets to it):
** The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (poor Historical Fiction – 17th century Amsterdam)
** An Evil Eye by Jason Goodwin (good HF, NOT as good as The Janissary Tree – actually the history is better than the plot – lol.)
** The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin – (interesting HF – Mary mother of Jesus, 1st century Ephesus and Judea )
** All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (nicely done HF – tail end of WWII in northern France)
** The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (re-read – excellent HF – New Zealand 1860s!)
** The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (fine HF – WWII Burma)
** Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris 1932 by Francine Prose (good HF – Paris, WWII)
** The Quincunx: The Inheritance of John Huffam by Charles Palliser (superb HF – Victorian London)
** Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (okay HF – Iceland – 19th century)
** Harvest by Jim Croce (okay HF – 16th century England)
** Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (poor HF – 19th century US – actually this is a YA book, imo, and might get YAs interested in HF – there are notes and stuff – it’s just not very well incorporated or something).
** The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas (fair HF with a heck of an ending – WWII Germany)
** The Master by Colm Toibin (okay HF- biographical fiction of Henry James – mostly 19th century)
** Singapore Grip by J. G. Farrell (super HF – Singapore WWII)
** Troubles by J. G. Farrell (incredible HF – Ireland post-WWI, independence)
** Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (re-read – exceptional HF – early 20th century US)
** The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (very poor HF – John Brown days – silly more than anything – annoying)
** From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjon (great HF – Iceland 17th century)
** The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (okay HF – 19th century rural England)
** Morality Play by Barry Unsworth (excellent HF – 14th century northern England)
** Quarantine by Jim Crace (interesting – Jesus in the wilderness / 1st century)
Well that was quite a project – maybe I should put that on my blog. (lol)