Recent Summer Reads: Historical Fiction

historical fiction booksI’ve been busy lately (with PhD work etc.) so rather than reviewing lots of books in separate blog posts, I decided to review a few of them together. I love historical fiction, both as time travel and escapism. It’s also a genre that makes you compare your own attitudes to those of others – other people living in different times and different cultures. And though it’s difficult to pinpoint how, I am sure that some of these characters and ideas are subsumed into my subconscious and resurface, often years later, in my own poems.   

The book that stands out most, as I look back over the last few months, is Now we shall be entirely free by Andrew Miller. The plot follows Captain John Lacroix, as he returns to England after fighting in Spain during the Napoleonic wars. But his experience in a Spanish village still haunts him, and he ends up traveling to the Hebrides, in search of respite and escape. Unbeknownst to him, he is being tracked by two men who intend to kill him. Miller’s prose is so elegant and poetic that I often stopped to re-read a passage, to savour it fully, before moving on. The book has also inspired me to embark on my own Scottish island adventure, though I’m not sure when I’ll be able to make that a reality.

Having read Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant, I was inspired to read more of her books. A Room Made of Leaves is even more evocative and addictive. I love the fact that it is based on a real character. The novel poses as the true story of Mrs Macarthur, including excerts from her real letters, brought alive in the context of a strange, loveless marriage to a man of ambition and endless scheming, with whom she ends up travelling to the colony of New South Wales in the 1780s.

The Autumn of the AceThe novel is broken up into very short sections or chapters, each of which feels like a poem. This fragmentation gives a sense of what life would have been like for such a woman, rarely having any time to herself, with almost no control over her own fate. But there is a strong sense of power in the narrative: here is a woman setting down her own history, at long last, and laughing at the letters she herself penned to her friends, full of irony, lies and exaggeration, because her husband insisted on reading every single one.

The final book I’d recommend is Louis de Bernieres’ The Autumn of the Ace, set in the aftermath of the Second World War. It took a while for me to get into this one, mainly because there are a lot of characters. But it soon became addictive, and I fell in love with half of them. Their tangled relationships and love affairs feel odd but also realistic, and there is a strong sense of the importance of family, and forgiveness, along with some rather quirky aspects to the plot, such as a pet lion.

So here’s to more historical fiction…

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One thought on “Recent Summer Reads: Historical Fiction

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the Andrew Miller novel you mentioned too, Rachel. Not the usual choice for me but it was recommended by Swansea Waterstones and turned out to be one of my favourite novels of 2020!

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