I’ve read a lot of excellent historical novels by female authors, but they don’t always (and this isn’t necessarily a criticism) forefront the female experience. For Women’s History Month I’ve plucked from my shelves, real and virtual, a few that particularly highlight the lives of women in days gone by. Firstly, I’m recommending 8 novels fictionalising famous and relatively unknown women; secondly I’ve selected 8 (from potentially hundreds) exploring historical happenings through a female perspective. All are from female authors who might yet become historical figures themselves!
Allow me to introduce you to a pair of novels about literally and metaphorically staying afloat in choppy waters. The first is a cli-fi translated novel about abandoned children; the second a historical debut about a woman at sea in a man’s world. Both are page-turners, so read on!
History with meddlesome jinns and fairies: The Ninth Child & The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree
My two final reviews for February are of historical novels with touches of culturally-appropriate magic realism. They also feature the losses and gains of relocating from a major city to a rural area in a period of rapid social change. The first is about public health and engineering in nineteenth century Scotland; the second is set between the late twentieth century and the present in post-revolutionary Iran.
These two novels feature the displacement of people and the unique cultures and environments they left behind. The first introduces us to the remote Scottish island of St Kilda whose depleted population was evacuated to the mainland in 1930. The second links Venice with the Sunderbans in the Bay of Bengal via folklore and cli-fi. Despite their complementary covers, they’re very different books.
These two recent reads explore physical and psychological survival, or otherwise, in extreme weather conditions. The first is a historical novel about the devastating human, climactic and economic consequences of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia. The second is a translated novella about vulnerable hermit overwintering in the Italian Alps. If you choose to read either of these, you won’t be disappointed.
Both of these novels defy easy classification, but I’ve chosen to pair them for their themes of the legacy of slavery, or the way in which owning another person demeans us all. In the first, we follow a young man, marked by his unusual appearance, from babyhood in Jamaica shortly before independence to England and back. The second is a translated Argentinian dystopian novel about cannibalism. In both novels, a character, or characters, withhold or are denied their voice.
That’s right, both novels are about daughters: the first a debut about the claustrophobic bond between mothers and daughters exacerbated by the claustrophobic island setting; the second a translation from Hebrew set in late 19th-century Russia about the consequences of a father teaching his younger daughter his unusual trade. Of course there might be other connections but, as you’ll see if you read to the end, right now, I’ve got fictional daughters on the brain.
In what circumstances is it acceptable for women to abandon their traditional roles? What are the consequences if they should do so ill-advisedly? Although these two novels are set in different times and cultures to my own, they raised questions for me as to how far we can safely step out of line. The first novel pays homage to the forgotten women of Ethiopia who took up arms when the country was invaded by Mussolini’s troops. In the second, set in seventeenth century north Norway, the women have no choice but to do the jobs previously carried out by their menfolk when a storm at sea wipes out most of the male population, only for some to find themselves accused of witchcraft a few years later.
What could these two novels possibly have in common other than the similar colours on the covers, and that I read them consecutively in the week they were published in the UK? The first is a family saga spanning six decades from the Spanish Civil War to the defeat of Pinochet in 1990s Chile from a doyenne of Latin American literature. The second is a debut about madness and motherhood. Both are concerned with exile, to and from Europe and the Americas; the latter also addressing psychological exile from the self.
Although these two historical novels are very different, both sparked some deep reflection about the workings of the human mind, and especially how our reasoning and problem-solving is influenced by beliefs and assumptions which, in turn, are shaped by the times and cultures in which we live. Both are set primarily in mainland Europe – the first in the seventeenth century and the second towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth – and feature – predominantly in the first and latterly in the second – countries ravaged by war.
Having begun the year’s reviews with a Kindle catch-up, including a couple of single-author collections, my attention was drawn to another couple of multi-author short-story anthologies waiting on my physical shelf. I don’t know why I’d neglected them. Perhaps because anthologies are harder than novels to review? Whatever reason, I’ve finally read them. Enjoyed them. And now I’m here to tell you why.
Both these novels feature characters who are challenged and/or challenge others with their different-from-average minds. In the first, it’s a young man with Down’s syndrome, viewed from the perspective of his loving father. In the second, it’s a young woman, latterly diagnosed with schizophrenia, who inadvertently time travels to Elizabethan England. If that doesn’t sound like your kind of book, do give me the chance to persuade you otherwise!
If I’ve reviewed any other novels set during the Black Death that swept across Europe in 1348, I’ve forgotten them. These two, published in the UK this summer, are likely to stay in my mind for some time. The first set in Ireland, the second in southern England, they’re very different, although both original in their language and style. And disturbingly topical as we’re catapulted towards an apocalypse – both politically and climatically – of our own.
Here we have two recently published novels about women caught on camera, or doing the catching, casting a wide-angle lens on the turbulent politics of the first half of the twentieth century, with Fascism on the rise. The first zooms in on movie stars and/or makers: Anna May Wong, Leni Riefenstahl, and Marlene Dietrich. The second on Gerda Taro, a lesser-known (at least to me) feminist photojournalist, who died documenting the Spanish Civil War.
Here I’ve paired two recent British novels inspired by real-life disasters affecting entire communities: the first being the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand; the second a plane crashing into a tower block in 1996 Amsterdam. I didn’t find either easy to get into, but both rewarded patient reading. See what you think!
Sometimes, the covers of books I’ve paired for review are so well matched, despite differences in genre, it appears I’ve put them together for aesthetic reasons. But, while I like to dress my blog attractively, it’s the content that counts. These two translated novels fictionalise real-life historical figures who were meticulous observers of the world around them. The first is still celebrated 500 years later; the second has been forgotten in the half-century since her death.
Two novels, based on real events, about the impact on ordinary people of terrorising revolutions within two African countries. The first, a historical novel set in Ethiopia, is the author’s debut; the second, a fictionalised account of the schoolgirls abducted in northern Nigeria only a few years ago, comes from a writer with a career spanning almost six decades. Both are harrowing, empathetic and meticulously researched.
Two historical novels in which young people are subject to brutal institutional regimes: in the first as comfort women in Singapore under the Japanese invasion; in the second as supposed offenders in Jim-Crow-era Florida. Both novels contrast the main character’s aspirations prior to captivity with their struggle to survive unspeakable cruelties with their sanity intact, and the scars they carry for the rest of their lives. Thankfully, for the reader who can vicariously accompany them, there’s some hope of redemption by the end. Read on, or jump to the end of the post for this week’s 99-word story.
Here are two novels in which the narrator looks back on past connections: the first a coming-of-age tale during Ireland’s electrification; the second a writer’s stream-of-consciousness(ish) look at her Tunisian roots. The colour-coordinated covers is pure coincidence. This week’s 99-word story in response to the prompt ‘the greatest gift’ follows my reviews.
finding truth through fiction
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of three fiction books.
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GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
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