It is 1922, and England and her citizens are still recovering from the upheaval of the First World War: High unemployment, disillusioned ex-soldiers and severely strained circumstances are commonplace. Twenty-seven-year-old Frances Wray and her mother are living in South London. Both of Frances’ brothers died in the war, and her father’s recent death left the two women close to financial ruin. Even with the dismissal of servants and Frances taking over the housework and meals, the Wrays no longer have enough to live on. Their decision to take in lodgers, or “paying guests” as they genteelly refer to them, leads to an event as ultimately life-altering as the war itself.
It is said that truth is often stranger than fiction, but what happens when truth can only be found in the pages of fiction? Readers of Laila Lalami’s latest novel, The Moor’s Account, may find themselves asking exactly that question, as fact and fantasy coalesce in a masterful story that shines a new light on one of the darkest eras of history.
It’s estimated that around 500 women passed themselves off as men so they could fight in the Civil War. In the haunting Neverhome, Laird Hunt deftly imagines one such situation and its heartbreaking repercussions.
Fans of historical fiction will be drawn to The Miniaturist, a fantastical tale from British debut novelist Jessie Burton that takes place in 17th-century Amsterdam. The story begins as 18-year-old Nella Oortman arrives at the home of her wealthy merchant husband, Johannes Brandt. Surprisingly, though, he is nowhere to be found. In his stead is his strictly religious sister, Marin; housemaid Cornelia; and his manservant, a former slave named Otto. Nella, a country girl, is forced to forge her way alone as head of the household.
We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas’ epic first novel, was 10 years in the making and, upon completion, the subject of a vigorous publishers’ bidding war. Readers will understand why.
It’s been quite a run lately for Civil War-era African Americans. Not only was Solomon Northrup’s 1853 memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, adapted into a triple Academy Award winner (including Best Picture), but now author Jeffery Renard Allen has resurrected the career—if perhaps not quite the true life story—of Thomas Greene Wiggins, also known as Blind Tom, in his second novel, Song of the Shank. Wiggins was perhaps the most unlikely of stars ever thrust on the international stage; sightless, probably autistic, heavyset (though somewhat handsome in a rough-hewn way) and, for the first 16 years of his life, a slave.
Warning to the reader: It is impossible for this review to proceed without a number of spoilers. In case anyone still holds the charming belief (as I do) that the mechanics of plot have a bearing on our enjoyment of a novel, the reviewer feels obliged to perform his task up front. I shall do it The Quick (pardon the pun) way: If you are a fan of literary Gothic—think Susanna Clarke or John Harwood—buy this book. You won’t regret it.
BookPage Fiction Top Pick, June 2014
The best historical fiction offers readers a new look at a well-known subject, or illuminates an episode or individual that has been lost to history. Playwright Kimberly Elkins achieves the latter in What Is Visible, a strikingly original debut novel about Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind person to communicate through finger spelling.
Chinese-American author Lisa See has made her mark in the realm of historical fiction by melding her well-researched historical sagas with strong female characters linked either by birth, as in Shanghai Girls (2009) and Dreams of Joy (2011), or by lifelong friendship, as in her breakout book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005).
When people think about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, they often think of the iconic pink suit she wore on the fateful day that her husband, John F. Kennedy Jr., was assassinated in Dallas. Many people thought it to be a Chanel; however, it was a knock-off—made, like most of Mrs. Kennedy’s clothing, by an American dressmaker. Nicole Mary Kelby imagines the lives of one of those dressmakers through the lens of that famous outfit in her new novel, The Pink Suit, a luxurious narrative about Jackie Kennedy, a young seamstress, and the creation of the pink boucle suit.