New Historical Fiction to Read - The New York Times

Plenty of high-profile authors are serving up historical fiction this season, including Colm Toibin, Lauren Groff, Anthony Doerr and Jonathan Franzen. But there’s still plenty of room for writers who aren’t marquee names — at least not yet.

Consider, for example, Judith McCormack, whose THE SINGING FOREST (Biblioasis, 302 pp., paper, $16.95) blends thought-provoking reflections on the moral reckoning of war crimes with a warm, wry, almost Anne Tyler-esque depiction of a young woman’s attempts to decode her eccentric professional and personal families. Leah Jarvis is a fledgling lawyer working for a brilliant but cantankerous immigration specialist whose latest case, taken on behalf of the Canadian government, involves assembling enough evidence to deport an elderly pensioner back to his native Belarus.

The novel opens with a chilling glimpse of the Kurapaty forest, where thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of the victims ofStalin’s security police have lain since the late 1930s, “a place of shadows, lost in an uneasy sleep.” From there, we’re transported to a baking-hot courtroom in 21st-century Toronto. How does a peasant boy who learned to read from a prayer book become an accomplice to mass murder? McCormack intercuts scenes from Stefan Drozd’s brutal early years with Leah’s present-day musings about the power and limits of her profession, then sets them against views of Leah’s chaotic home life with the three bachelor uncles who raised her. Leah’s losses, her questions about her parents, are subtly contrasted with larger questions about truth and responsibility, especially when she flies off to conduct interviews in Minsk, “where facts had been malleable for so long, where they had become saleable commodities.”

Survival is suddenly uppermost in the minds of the previously complacent characters in A GUARDIAN ANGEL RECALLS (Archipelago, 511 pp., paper, $20), David Colmer’s translation of Willem Frederik Hermans’s deeply sardonic fictional rendition of the first few days of the German invasion of the Netherlands. The unlikely figure at the center of this home-front World War II novel is a 38-year-old public prosecutor with a comb-over and a thwarted passion for a 25-year-old Jewish communist who has just departed for America. At first, Alberegt spends more time brooding about her than he does about the Nazis. Even when the bombs start to drop, “it was as if war could not get serious in a country as civilized as the Netherlands,” where radio broadcasts counter the advancing enemy with Beethoven symphonies and newspapers urge civilians to convert colanders into protective headgear.

There’s a sharp edge to Hermans’s unsettling comedy. That’s because Alberegt has a terrible secret: Racing back from saying goodbye to his paramour, he hit a little girl with his car, dumped her body in a bush and sped away. There were no witnesses to the accident — except the guardian angel who continues to watch over this resolute atheist and the devil who rides shotgun. These two provide a running commentary as Alberegt stays mum, despite learning more about the dead 6-year-old, whose parents had been sent to a concentration camp. “In a country occupied by Hitler,” Alberegt tells himself, “volunteering information that you’ve run over and killed a Jewish child … would sound like you were trying to lend a helping hand.” Repellent as Alberegt can be, his predicament is wickedly enticing.

Repulsive, filthy, pornographic: These were just a few of the words used to rationalize the censorship of D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” in the decades before the unexpurgated text was finally published in 1960. When Alison MacLeod came across evidence of the F.B.I.’s intense covert monitoring of the British trial that led to that release, her curiosity was piqued. Further research — and the blend of guesswork and fabrication it inspired — has resulted in the novel she calls TENDERNESS (Bloomsbury, 640 pp., $29), in homage to one of the titles Lawrence originally considered.

“Every story,” MacLeod argues in an afterword, “is a story of ‘What if.’” You could get a migraine trying to unravel her fact from her fiction, which shifts a few timelines to allow Lionel Trilling and Jacqueline Kennedy to enter the story via the obscenity trial of Lawrence’s American publisher. Splice in creepy scenes featuring J. Edgar Hoover and a neurotic F.B.I. agent keeping an eye on the “demure, Catholic, potential first lady” and you have an unexpectedly convincing plotline.

But that’s only one of the narrative possibilities MacLeod considers. Here’s an ever-rebellious Lawrence, dying of tuberculosis in the south of France in 1930. And, doubling back, a depiction of his World War I exile in rural Sussex with the cultivated British family whose lives he would painfully distort in a widely read story. Here’s the 20-year-old granddaughter of the war widow whose husband was humiliated by that story, studying Lawrence at Cambridge in the late 1950s, unaware of the family connection — until she’s asked to play a part in the trial against his publisher. Here’s that trial, full of drama, even though we know what the verdict will be. And, most provocatively, here are Italian views, in the autumn of 1920, of Lawrence’s tryst with the woman who would inspire his novel’s heroine. Such slicing and dicing and speculating shouldn’t work. And yet, against the odds, it does.

Rachel Pastan engages in more conventionally structured speculation in IN THE FIELD (Delphinium, 352 pp., $26.95), which is based on the life of Barbara McClintock, the American cytogeneticist who won the Nobel Prize in 1983. From childhood, McClintock’s alter ego, Kate Croft, experiences a tidal wave of struggles: with a mother who can’t see the point of sending her to college, with fellow students and colleagues who undermine her efforts, with a scientific establishment that belittles the achievements of women. She also struggles with her sexuality and with the realization that even after she and a female partner find happiness, their bond will be tested by the demands of her career.

Pastan’s portrayal of Kate is persuasively nerdy. Her dedication to the study of corn genetics is consuming: She thrills to a dinner conversation dominated by analyses of maize pigments and feels personally affronted when a friend switches his study subject from corn to flies. In one of her few heterosexual encounters, she finds herself comparing the poor man’s member to a corn cob. Constantly told she needs to get out into the world and press her case, Kate is way more comfortable in the lab. Small wonder that she broods after hearing an eminent professor’s formula for success in science — talent, luck and perseverance — “He hadn’t mentioned arrogance. Assurance. Ruthlessness. Pride.”

Paul Griffiths takes a different historical tack in MR. BEETHOVEN (New York Review Books, 312 pp., paper, $17.95). In 1823, Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society (a real organization that still exists) approached the great composer with an invitation to write an oratorio. In fact, the deal was never struck, but Griffiths urges us to suppose that it was — and that Beethoven lived a few years longer than he actually did and traveled to America in 1833. This invented tale is then superimposed onto a rigorously researched depiction of early-19th-century Boston, complete with a lively cast of characters salvaged from the records of the period.

How to deal with the fact that Beethoven was deaf and didn’t speak English? Griffiths has discovered that at that time, due to “a rare prevalence of hereditary deafness,” people on Martha’s Vineyard had developed a form of sign language — so he imports a young woman from the nearby island to tutor Beethoven and serve as his interpreter. Along with her signing skills, her knowledge of Scripture comes in handy when he insists on rewriting the libretto and tussles with its author, a pompous Unitarian minister. That this often comic production goes forward is a minor miracle. And so is Griffiths’s novel.

At about the same time Griffiths is concocting a new opus for Beethoven, Annabel Abbs is imagining a back story for Eliza Acton, the British poet whose flair for writing recipes helped create the modern cookbook. Of the little that’s known of Acton’s life, this is true: that she and her assistant, Ann Kirby, lived in a small English market town and spent the decade between 1835 and 1845 composing “Modern Cookery for Private Families,” which stayed in print for more than 70 years, despite having a third of its recipes plagiarized by the more famous Mrs. Beeton.

In MISS ELIZA’S ENGLISH KITCHEN (Morrow, 400 pp., paper, $16.99), we learn of the bankruptcy that forced Eliza into genteel poverty and her father into clandestine exile, of Ann’s desperate attempts to cope with a ne’er-do-well father and a mentally ill mother. We witness face-offs with an arrogant publisher and a snobbish vicar, contemplate a prospective marriage that might save the Acton family’s fortunes and wonder what sorrows are hidden in Eliza’s early verse. Eliza and Ann take turns narrating, but at all times food is foremost. “It seems to me,” Eliza proclaims, “that the kitchen, with its natural intimacy, is more conducive to friendship and love than any other room in the house.”

When Édouard Manet wasn’t in his studio, he was happiest in the boudoir. At least that’s the impression you get from Maureen Gibbon’s THE LOST NOTEBOOK OF ÉDOUARD MANET (Norton, 336 pp., paper, $17.95), which purports to be a diary kept by the French artist in the three years before his death — of complications from what he discreetly calls “a venereal malady.” These invented jottings, illustrated with a sampling of Manet’s sketches, often have a haiku-like quality as he ponders his increasing disability, his creative philosophy, his position in the art world and the many women he has loved and been inspired by.

It can be disconcerting to realize, when Manet wistfully philosophizes about the disappointments of his old age, that he was only 51 when he died. Does the end of his life instill any religious leanings? Hardly. “I think,” he mischievously proclaims, “my gods are Velásquez and dragonflies and salamanders.”

The central character in Harald Voetmann’s novella AWAKE (New Directions, 112 pp., paper, $14.95) might have understood Manet’s attraction to those last two. Sorgenfri Ottosen’s entertaining translation from the Danish pairs the remarks of Pliny the Elder, the first-century Roman author who is “in a rush to describe the world in detail,” with quotes from his “Natural History” and acerbic commentary from both his overbearing nephew, Pliny the Younger, and his cynical servant, Diocles. “Only those who haven’t tried the sour wine served in our house,” Diocles notes in a typical aside, “will ever take my master’s book on winemaking seriously.”

Denise Mina is a name to be taken very seriously when it comes to crime fiction. So it’s not surprising that when she ventured back into the history of her native Scotland, she’d be drawn to one of its most famous murders. Her novella, RIZZIO (Pegasus, 128 pp. $20.95), depicts the gruesome demise of David Rizzio, private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, who was forced to watch in horror as a swarm of assassins rushed her chambers and stabbed him 57 times. Pregnant with a possible heir, conspired against by many (including her own husband), surviving mainly through her own cunning, Mary is a heroine tailor-made for Mina’s expert literary investigation.

The sort of religious strife that beset the British Isles in Mary’s time was still going strong more than a hundred years later, providing a potent backdrop for the ever-widening circles of mystery in Robert J. Lloyd’s THE BLOODLESS BOY (Melville House, 416 pp., $29.99). On New Year’s Day, 1678, the naked corpse of a child is discovered in snowy London, apparently the victim of a macabre experiment. He turns out to be just one of three mutilated boys whose deaths may be explained by the coded papers found in the rooms of a recent suicide. More bizarre deaths follow, linking the city’s vilest slums with the palaces of the aristocracy and adding old betrayals to brand-new ones. Lloyd anchors his thriller’s plot with a real-life historical figure, the polymath natural philosopher Robert Hooke, and gives the bulk of the sleuthing to Hooke’s appealing fictional assistant, Harry Hunt, who delivers a fast-paced finale in a desperate attempt to forestall yet another — and politically disastrous — murder.

A hundred years ago, Parisians would stand outside a shop on the Left Bank to admire a plaster cast of the hypnotically serene face of a young woman whose body had been found beside the Seine. (For five francs, they could take home their own copy.) Never identified, she has inspired many stories over the years, the latest being Brooks Hansen’s THE UNKNOWN WOMAN OF THE SEINE (Delphinium, 272 pp., $26), which intersects her arrival in Paris with that of a man, recently held as a prisoner of war in China, who’s intent on restoring his good name and rejoining his former colleagues in the gendarmes. Emile Brassard knows nothing about her — except that she has stolen the donkey cart of a murdered tinker. Others who encounter the woman form their own ideas: A besotted sot of an artist insists on being her “knight in threadbare armor”; an “impresario of the lower entertainments” wants her to perform in his Folies Nouvelle; the proprietor of “a respectable but not particularly respected non-luxury brothel for non-luxury clientele” assumes she’s just another new hire. Looming above the action is the Eiffel Tower, centerpiece of the 1889 Universal Exposition. Could the fairground at its base yield clues to the young woman’s past?

Farther along the Seine, certain other distractions were open only to the guests and students of Jean-Martin Charcot, the eminent neurologist whose demonstrations of female hysteria featured some of the inmates of the Salpêtrière asylum. Set in 1885, Victoria Mas’s THE MAD WOMEN’S BALL (Overlook, 224 pp., $25) sends a 19-year-old member of the bourgeoisie into its wards when her father determines that her interest in spiritualism has gone much too far. Eugénie is incarcerated not long before the extravagant entertainment of the novel’s title, a yearly event when Parisians are invited into the hospital to mingle and dance with Charcot’s lavishly costumed mental patients: “Their allure was paradoxical; they aroused both fear and fantasy, horror and sensuality.”

The novel has been turned into a film, and Frank Wynne’s translation also has a cinematic, increasingly Gothic, aura. That Eugénie doesn’t belong in an asylum is quite clear, as is the fact that she does seem to have psychic powers. She believes she’s a conduit for messages from the afterlife, and when she channels the voice of the long-dead sister of Geneviève, the asylum’s head nurse, the stage is set for a brooding psychodrama. Will Eugénie be able to enlist Geneviève as an ally in her plan to escape? Will Geneviève’s worship of science give way to emotional impulses she can’t control? As one of the asylum’s older residents has counseled, “Dreams are dangerous things. … Especially when they depend on someone else.”

Alida Becker is a former editor at the Book Review.


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