New Historical Fiction to Read This Summer – The New York Times
These novels remind us that people have made horrible mistakes since the beginning of time. (They also contain love, joy and triumph!)
I like to define historical fiction in generous terms. Much more than an imaginary escape into bygone times, the best examples can reveal how people and places have changed (or not), letting us see the concerns of our fractious present through the prism of the past. Here are a dozen new books that succeed, in a satisfying variety of ways, in doing just that.
Uzma Aslam Khan’s THE MIRACULOUS TRUE HISTORY OF NOMI ALI (Deep Vellum, 370 pp., $26.95) is indeed a miraculous performance, although the young girl called Nomi Ali is only one of the many characters whose histories are entangled here. Set in the Andaman Islands, a British penal colony in the Bay of Bengal, just before and during World War II, Khan’s suspenseful, thought-provoking narrative is a challenge to simple assumptions about enemies and friends, loyalty and betrayal.
What was the “terrible mistake” that sent Nomi’s father from India to this brutal labor camp along with his innocent wife and children? Did the lone female political prisoner really manage to escape, as rumor has it? Will the invading Japanese Army, with its “Asia for Asians” propaganda, yield an occupation that’s any less vicious for the people of the archipelago than that of the Raj?
Clandestine spies abound, as well as some obvious villains. But most of the compromised yet deeply sympathetic inhabitants of South Andaman Island have a single aim: to live for one more day. Nomi’s teenage friend Aye is a perfect example. The grandson of a prisoner deported from Burma and the son of a father deranged by medical experiments, he works for the British and even assists in force-feeding hunger strikers. Yet he’s also capable of defiant acts of bravery. Like his neighbor Shakuntala, the half-caste Indian widow of a British bureaucrat, he must maneuver “between so many worlds.”
In contrast, Henry Dao does everything in his power to forget the world of his youth in China. After earning a place at a Midwestern university, he marries an American, takes an engineering job and determines to become a new man. It’s no surprise, then, that he bristles whenever his daughter asks for stories about her grandmother in Taiwan, who struggled to survive on the mainland during the Japanese invasion and the Communist takeover that followed. Melissa Fu’s accomplished first novel, PEACH BLOSSOM SPRING (Little, Brown, 385 pp., $28), documents Henry’s diligent attempts to put down roots in New Mexico, but its strength lies in its portrayal of the many places — Changsha, Chongqing, Shanghai and points in between — where his mother, Meilin, sought refuge with her only child, known then as Renshu.
Along the way, Meilin tries to comfort little Renshu with tales inspired by an antique scroll, the only item of value she could salvage after her husband’s death. The novel takes its title from one of these stories, about a fisherman who longs for his family even after discovering a magical place that seems like paradise: “If you are fortunate enough to find it, you are also unfortunate. … Do you stay, and forgo all else? Or do you return home, with the understanding that you’ll never find it again?”
Lhamo and Tenkyi, the sisters at the center of Tsering Yangzom Lama’s WE MEASURE THE EARTH WITH OUR BODIES (Bloomsbury, 349 pp., $26), are painfully aware that the Tibet of their ancestors is a place that can live only in their hearts. They have lost both parents in their flight across the Himalayas to a Nepalese refugee camp. Moving between that camp and the Little Tibet section of Toronto (“a copy of a copy of home”), Lama’s novel spans 50 years and three generations, vividly documenting one family’s attempts to stay faithful to time-honored traditions.
Lama sets up a particularly searing contrast between the daily experiences of Lhamo, who makes a tenuous living selling trinkets to tourists near Kathmandu, and those of the wealthy art connoisseurs encountered by Lhamo’s daughter, Dolma, an aspiring Tibetan scholar who pursues her studies in Canada and lives with her aunt Tenkyi, a former teacher who now cleans hotel rooms. Moving back and forth in time, hinging crucial plot twists to the disappearance (or is it theft?) of a sacred relic, Lama offers an unsentimental account of these Tibetan expatriates’ “ugly game” of survival.
Ancient, blind Maryam Priscilla Grace is one of the tenacious survivors of the ugly practice of slavery. In Sheila Williams’s THINGS PAST TELLING (Amistad, 339 pp., $25.99), we first meet Maryam in 1870, as she basks in the sun outside her home in Liberty Township, Ohio. But she quickly sends her story back to “the before time,” when she was a precocious child in a thriving West African village. On visits with her father to nearby towns, she demonstrates a knack for learning different languages — a skill that will be key to her survival once she finds herself in the fetid hold of a slave ship, surrounded by the “many tongues” of her terrified fellow captives.
Williams’s lively plotting takes her heroine from the Caribbean lair of a group of Black pirates to the fields of Virginia’s plantation country. Maryam will succeed in having a family, although not as she imagined it. Above all, she will break free of her chains, both “the iron kind and the kind that wrapped themselves around your thoughts.”
When Emma Hale marries an itinerant treasure hunter named Joseph Smith in rural Pennsylvania, she has no idea she’s committing herself not just to a self-confident young man but to a religious movement. Its rapid growth will be met with horrific violence on the Illinois frontier — and with a fierce struggle for power within its own ranks. Libbie Grant’s THE PROPHET’S WIFE (Morrow, 447 pp., paper, $16.99) probes the emotional maelstrom that engulfs this guileless woman as she watches her husband evolve from a charismatic small-town preacher into the embattled leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Early on, Emma acts as Joseph’s secretary, helping transcribe the revelations that will become the Book of Mormon, but as his congregation multiplies, she is pushed away from its inner circle. As time goes on, she finds it increasingly difficult to avoid questioning her faith — and her marriage. Then comes the ultimate test, Joseph’s adoption of the polygamous “doctrine of spiritual wifery,” which will see him take up with a woman Emma thought was her best friend. By this point, though, it’s too late to change course. Joseph is “a fixture of her life. She wouldn’t have known who she was without him.”
The fixtures of New York social life in the late 19th century are under siege in Carol Wallace’s charming historical romance, OUR KIND OF PEOPLE (Putnam, 357 pp., paperback, $17). Perfect for appetites that have been whetted by HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” it follows the fortunes of Helen and Joshua Wilcox, whose love match (she’s from an old family; his barely qualifies as “trade”) still attaches a whiff of scandal to their teenage daughters, Jemima and Alice, when debutante season arrives.
Their father makes matters worse by taking a business gamble that requires the family to save money by moving in with Helen’s frosty mother. Jemima and Alice are attracted to seemingly unsuitable older men. Will Jemima succumb to the charms of the nouveau-riche wheeler-dealer who almost bankrupted Joshua? Has Alice been totally captivated by a widower with a “noble war wound” and an adorable child? Of more immediate concern: Will Joshua’s plan to take his transport company public be his downfall — or will it give Helen the means to challenge Annabelle van Ormskirk, doyenne of the Manhattan elite? Wallace allows us a frisson of uncertainty, but it’s not enough to sabotage our hopes for the Wilcoxes’ happy ending. After all, as Helen is delighted to learn, her mother’s “small-town, pastel-hued version of New York” is rapidly being replaced by “a larger, louder, more colorful city.”
Victoria Shorr uses a pair of novellas in MID-AIR (Norton, 179 pp., $26.95) to contrast two quintessentially American families, one clinging to an impeccably well-connected past and the other roughly scrambling to build a fortune for the future. By the time the shabby-genteel central character in “Great Uncle Edward” is sitting down to dinner in his great-nephew’s apartment, what remains of his family’s well-mannered aristocratic world is little more than his sang-froid. Edward Perkins’s buttoned-up style is a far cry from that of the 13-year-old immigrant who arrives at Ellis Island in Shorr’s second novella, “Cleveland Auto Wrecking.” Given the “American name” Sam White, he manages to hustle from Midwestern street peddler to Palm Springs real-estate baron, using a remarkable head for numbers to compensate for an inability to read. That’s a skill he’ll leave to his three sons, who’ll squabble their way from managing the family junkyard to multiplying the old man’s millions.
What links the Perkinses and the Whites, apart from the fact that their trajectories are meeting “midair”? For starters, there’s Shorr’s eye for telling detail as she unreels the families’ varied experiences. And then there’s her insightful acknowledgment that those experiences are transformed as they sink into the past, that their subtle shadings will inevitably be lost. “By the time the story came down to us,” Perkins’s great-niece remarks of one pivotal family drama, “it had regularized itself into an archetypal morality tale.”
It can seem as if plague-stricken 14th-century Europe consisted of nothing but morality tales. In Peter Manseau’s brilliantly brooding THE MAIDEN OF ALL OUR DESIRES (Arcade, 330 pp., $26.99), a band of nuns at an impoverished abbey await a visit from their bishop, who’s heard alarming rumors that they’ve strayed from the spirit of the Rule. At issue are the letters composed by their anchorite founder, reverently compiled as the Book of Ursula. Are they simply pious meditations? Or a dangerously heretical text? Over the course of a single day, Manseau delves into the past lives of several key characters, showing how they came to be in this remote place and why the letters should be the least of the bishop’s worries.
Of particular concern is the priest assigned to the community, Father Francis, with his hideously damaged face and his obsession with carving a penitential cross. Then there’s energetic young Sister Magdalene, raised at the abbey after her mother died of the plague, whose meetings with the bishop’s clerk may involve more than a desperate effort to save the sisterhood. Presiding over this potential debacle is the abbess, Mother John, failing in body and mind, haunted by visions of martyrdom but determined to protect “these women in the wilderness.”
It would be hard to find an environment less like a cloister than the 18th-century Versailles of Eva Stachniak’s THE SCHOOL OF MIRRORS (Morrow, 403 pp., paperback, $16.99). When Louis XV tires of courtly intrigue, he becomes “a connoisseur of innocence.” Véronique Roux, one of many young virgins stolen from the slums to satisfy his sexual appetite, makes the mistake of growing fond of him — with dire consequences when she becomes pregnant and is abruptly shunted into an efficient clandestine network set up to deal with the monarch’s many illegitimate offspring.
The bulk of the novel traces the fortunes of Véronique’s daughter, Marie-Louise, who is wrenched away from her mother and sent from one foster family to another, even spending time among the palace servants. Eventually, she trains as a midwife in Paris and settles into a happy marriage with a politically minded lawyer. But as revolutionary fervor engulfs the capital, rumors about her royal connections put her husband in danger. Not exactly a good time to re-encounter her long-lost mother.
Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens is about as far away from his father as he can possibly get. The teenage narrator of Thomas Keneally’s exuberant coming-of-age tale THE DICKENS BOY (Atria, 401 pp., $28) has been sent to Australia after failing to distinguish himself at school in England. Unfortunately, even at isolated sheep stations, he can’t escape the adoring fans of Dickens’s novels, none of which he has read. Mischievously, Keneally surrounds Edward with a vast array of characters who can only be described as Dickensian, from the evil stock and station agent Mr. Fremmel, whose mistreated French wife runs off with his nephew, to the Starlight gang, outlaws who force a day of games and entertainment on one set of their victims.
James Runcie has also written a coming-of-age novel. But THE GREAT PASSION (Bloomsbury, 260 pp., $28) uses its narrator’s musical education to explore larger spiritual issues. It’s 1726, and Stefan Silbermann, the son of a Freiberg organ maker, is sent to a school in Leipzig in hopes that the move will assuage his grief over the death of his mother. Unfortunately, the other students greet him with taunts and bullying, but when his fine singing voice attracts the attention of the school’s choir director, his misery begins to abate.
The choir director is none other than Johann Sebastian Bach. As Stefan is befriended by the Bach family and welcomed into their home, he becomes a witness to the creation of his mentor’s masterpiece, the “St. Matthew Passion.” Later, he’ll even be a participant in its debut performance.
Death comes not only to the Bachs but to the mother of Stefan’s great rival in the choir, enlarging what had previously been his more private grappling with mortality. He’s heard that “in order to appreciate the gift of eternity we have to understand what it is to live a finite life.” Could it be that “if we lived forever, we would not love each other so urgently”?
Sylvia Plath died by suicide in 1963 at age 30. Despite its title, Lee Kravetz’s debut novel, THE LAST CONFESSIONS OF SYLVIA P. (Harper, 264 pp., $25.99), is less about Plath than it is about the way others see her — and the way her legacy might be exploited. The narrative pivots among three invented female characters: a lonely master curator at a Boston auction house, an ambitious poet who saw herself as a rival of Plath’s and a drug-addicted psychiatrist who treated both Plath and her mentor, Robert Lowell, when they were patients at McLean Hospital.
How are they connected to the notebooks (also invented by Kravetz) that contain “the original handwritten draft” of Plath’s famed autobiographical novel, “The Bell Jar”? And how did those notebooks come to be found in an attic in South Boston more than 50 years after they were written? In revisiting their own troubled lives, the characters reveal secret connections. Meanwhile, the two brothers who found the notebooks, hardly literary connoisseurs, are anticipating a bonanza payout when this treasure goes on the auction block. “Have the blades of Plath’s words gone dull over the decades,” the curator wonders early on, “or do they still draw blood?” Eventually, she’ll get an answer to that question — and in a very personal way.
Alida Becker is a former editor at the Book Review.