Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

The Anchoress

Content warning: mental health, self-harm. 

This book had received quite a lot of attention when it first came out, and I was intrigued to read a book that not only has such a striking pearlescent cover, but is by a Canberra author as well. I picked up a copy and it sat patiently on my shelf for ages, but when I got my copy signed at the author’s event launching her newest book, I knew it was time to give this one a go.

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“The Anchoress” by Robyn Cadwallader is a historical fiction novel about a teenage girl called Sarah in medieval England. Sarah decides to become an anchoress, secluding herself in a cell attached to a church to live the rest of her life in solitude and prayer. As the story progresses, the reader comes to learn why Sarah has chosen this hard, lonely life while Sarah learns that even as an anchoress, she cannot escape the outside world.

This is an ambitious book that is excellently crafted. It’s difficult to tell an engaging story completely set within a tiny cell, but Cadwallader brings to life a rich story full of engaging characters and moral dilemmas. You can tell the research that went into this book. Cadwallader conjures a world where the opportunities for a woman to make her own life are greatly limited, especially by the risks of childbirth. The day to day detail of this story brings medieval culture to life. In such simple times, even the smallest objects have so much meaning and utility. I think that my favourite parts of this book are the characters that Sarah interacts with, and the snippets of the outside world that she ultimately can’t escape. I also really loved how the discussion of writing a prayer onto an apple played out, and Sarah’s difficulty in interpreting her faith by balancing the wishes of the villagers and the decisions of the priests.

I think the only part of the book I struggled with was the ambiguity of Sarah either being haunted by the spirit of the previous anchoress Agnes, or suffering from some serious mental health issues. I appreciate that during medieval times, the line between mental illness and mysticism was much, much more blurry than it is today. However, I think that I would have liked maybe a little more focus on the mental health part and looking a bit more sharply at the damage Sarah was doing to herself rather than leaving it ambiguous.

This is a fascinating book that really immerses the reader into a medieval phenomenon that so little is known about. Cadwallader’s passion for her subject matter radiates off the page and I can’t wait to read more of her work.

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The Fish Girl

This book was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize and when I got a couple of book vouchers for my birthday last month, I knew that I wanted to spend one on this. I spent some years growing up in Indonesia, and studied the region for years at university, and I was so excited to read this story.

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“The Fish Girl” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novella based on a short story called “The Four Dutchmen” by W. Somerset Maugham. Riwoe’s story conjures a backstory for the character who is never named, but referred to as ‘the Malay trollope’. Riwoe imagines a young Indonesian girl who is hired by an Indo man to work in the kitchen of a Dutch merchant’s house. Mina is from a tiny fishing village and is very young and very naive. However, she soon settles into the routine of preparing and serving food for the master and begins to grow more confident. As time goes on, Mina is noticed by one of the master’s Dutch sailor friends as well as Ajat, a young man from her village. Despite her newfound confidence, Mina’s inexperience is taken advantage of and these men are ultimately her undoing.

This was an excellent novella. Riwoe drew on her own family knowledge as well as thorough knowledge to bring this story to life. Considering how undercooked a character she is in Maugham’s short story, this novella gives Mina a name and demands empathy from the reader when there was none originally. This book feels like a snapshot into both Indonesian culture and Dutch colonisation and it conveys so much in so little. I also loved Riwoe’s writing. I loved how she used spice and smell to bring an extra dimension to her story, and I adored her use of imagery. The similes she used were just exceptional, and completely believable as comparisons that Mina herself would use to make sense of her new life and new experiences.

I only have one criticism for this book, and it’s going to sound like a strange one, but I felt like the novella was too short. The pacing throughout the majority of the book was so perfect, but once Mina steps on the ship everything felt like it was at warp-speed. Riwoe covers all the events of “The Four Dutchmen” in only 14 pages. With all the care and detail and exactness that had been taken with the majority of the book, this part felt rushed and the situation deteriorated so quickly it was hard as a reader to keep up.

This is an excellent book and a stand-out example of the power of historical fiction to tell stories that were ignored or minimised at the time. I’m really looking forward to see more of Riwoe’s work and I am so glad that I picked this as one of my birthday books.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Novella

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society

I recently did a bit of a book swap with a colleague. I lent her “Skylarking” and she lent me this book. Unfortunately, I then promptly went away to America and it’s such a beautiful edition I didn’t want to chance ruining it or losing it overseas. It’s a beautiful hardcover edition, nicely understated with hints of red and gold in the slipcase and a really gorgeous texture to it. I finally managed to get around to reading it, and I think I probably liked her recommendation better than she liked mine.

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“The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society” is an epistolary historical fiction novel by Mary Ann Shaffer. This book is actually Shaffer’s only published work, and she died shortly before it was published. Her niece Annie Barrows, herself a published author, completed the final rewriting and editing of the manuscript. Although there is a wide cast of characters, the main is Juliet, a newspaper columnist who kept up witty commentary throughout World War II. After the war is over, she is struggling to decide what to do next when she receives a letter out of the blue from a man called Dawsey. Dawsey lives on the island of Guernsey, which had been occupied by Germany during the War, and had found a book inscribed with Juliet’s address. Fascinated by his story, and his membership with the mysterious Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society, begins corresponding with him and other members.

This is the first book in a while to make me laugh out loud. It has such a delightful beginning and is written in this very charming, British way that is simply captivating. I was surprised to find out the author is actually American because she  absolutely nailed that very exaggerated yet extremely polite style of humour. Juliet is a great character, and meeting the people of Guernsey through her eyes is just lovely. I think the only issue I found with this book is that it seemed to peter off a little towards the end. Maybe because the subject-matter started to get a little more serious. Maybe the relationship development felt a little rushed in one case. Maybe because Shaffer herself wasn’t able to do those final edits before publication – I’m not sure.

Either way, this was really a spirited, upbeat novel that was a wonderful change from some of the heavier books I’ve been reading lately.

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In Farleigh Field

I received an advanced reading copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. I don’t read many mysteries but I’m always eager to try new things and with autumn just beginning here, a novel set in a British manor was just the thing to cosy up to on a weekend.

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“In Farleigh Field” by Rhys Bowen is a novel about an upper class British family during the 1940s. Lord Westerham, his wife Lady Westerham and three of their daughters have had to relinquish part of their stately home Farleigh Place to local soldiers. Their third daughter Pamela is working a secret government job at Bletchly Park and nobody has heard from their second daughter Margot, who was designing clothes in France, for a long time. When a young London boy Alfie who is billeted at the gamekeeper’s house stumbles across a grisly discovery, he and Lady Phoebe, Westerham’s youngest, rush to tell the authorities. The mysterious body draws family friend and the son of the local Vicar Ben Cresswell back to Farleigh on a top secret mission. Ben grew up rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Westerhams, and although he finds an old flame rekindled, he discovers that maybe he doesn’t know the people in those circles as well as he thought he did.

This book is a great little romp perfect for a bit of weekend escapism. I’m loathe to say it because I’m sure the comparison has been made over and over, but if you enjoy period dramas like Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs, especially against the social equaliser background of the second world war, you’ll most certainly enjoy this. This story is another snapshot that adds to the mosaic of the British war experience and the remnants of the English gentry. Bowen has an easy, fluid style of writing that lets the story speak for itself. Her dialogue is particularly enjoyable, and her foray into M15, codebreaking and double agents is compelling reading. I particularly liked her treatment of women and romance in this story, and felt that she gave a real sense of the desire of young women of the times to gain useful knowledge and skills to do their part. I also liked how she handled the changing social attitudes towards sex and explored the diversity of sexual expression without judgment.

This is Bowen’s first standalone novel and it is a very enjoyable read that is clever enough to be engaging, but simple enough to relax into.

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Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior

After talking about a number of different issues together, a friend of mine lent me this book. I had never heard of it before (and I’ll go into that further in a minute) and apart from reading “Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms” last year, I haven’t had much exposure to Australian Aboriginal historical fiction. However, I have noticed that the role of Aboriginal people in early Australian historical fiction is often either glossed over or largely absent. The book has sat on my shelf for the better part of a year and finally I got around to reading it.

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“Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior” is a historical fiction novel by Aboriginal academic, engineer and writer Eric Willmot and originally published in the 1980s. The story is set in the late 1700s around the Sydney area shortly after the arrival of the first British convicts and settlers. When a young Awabakal man called Kiraban first sees white people arrive in his homeland by ship (in the Newcastle area), he decides to adventure with them south to Sydney to gain experience and status among his people. When he arrives, he befriends and learns the languages of both the white settlers and people from the Eora nation and observes the interplay between these two peoples. Although Eora elder Bennelong advocates cooperation with the British, Kiraban comes to hear stories of mysterious Bidjigal man Pemulwuy. Pemulwuy has stopped trading kangaroo meat with the British as he once did and has instead begun to sabotage the Governor’s attempts to expand Sydney and turn Eora land into farmland. Without any way to get home to his people, and with relations deteriorating between the British and the Eora, Kiraban must decide which side to join.

This is an incredibly important book. In his short background at the beginning of the novel, Willmot writes:

This was indeed a conspiracy of silence. The same that was applied to Pemulwuy’s resistance. It was apparently not in the interests of a crookedly intent or racist establishment to promote such parts of the Australian story. If this is true, then these people have stolen from generations of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal-Australians a heritage as important, as tragic and as heroic as that of any other nation on earth.

When I was in school, we learned about Captain Cook and the First Fleet. We learned about Banjo Patterson, the Gold Rush, the Eureka Stockade, Federation and the White Australia Policy. What we didn’t learn was about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history. Even though the idea that the continent of Australia as terra nullius has since been proven false, there is a real absence of Aboriginal history within the national consciousness. I believe that this book would have been a much more valuable book to study in school than some of the other Australian texts we studied. If Australians were to understand that there were valiant warriors among the Aboriginal people who first encountered and, for years, effectively resisted settlement, perhaps there would be more mutual respect today.

This was also a really interesting book for a number of other reasons. I really liked Willmot’s treatment of women in this book. Narawe is a fascinating character who shows ferocity as a fighter on a number of occasions. Willmot also compares the role of women both among the different tribal groups of the Eora as well as between Aboriginal people and the British. Willmot also explores the ethics of both the British approach to settlement and the resistance of Pemulwuy, highlighting the many grey areas and suffering on both sides. I think probably the thing that I found most difficult about this book is that although it was only 300 pages long, it did take me a while to get through it. It is quite heavy on military and tactical writing, something that I have never been particularly interested in.

Nevertheless, Willmot is a bright and considered writer who has filled an important historical gap with an alternative narrative of the people who have lived on this land for tens of thousands of years. I would highly recommend this book for history buffs who would like a more nuanced retelling of early British colonialism and the impacts on Aboriginal Australia.

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Skylarking

This book was selected as the February book for a feminist book club I go to. I hadn’t heard of it before, but it had me at the word “lighthouse”. I absolutely adore the title and the book has a beautiful cover.

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“Skylarking” is a debut historical novel by Kate Mildenhall. Based on a true story and set in late 1800s Australia, this book is about two girls who live in a small settlement at Cape St George in Jervis Bay, NSW. Kate’s father is the head lighthouse keeper while Harriet’s father is his second. Kate is younger, darker and interested in knowledge while Harriet is older, fairer and sweeter. They are inseparable friends – closer to each other than Kate is to any of her siblings. However as they grow up and start facing the realities and expectations of their time, it becomes increasingly apparent to Kate that their idyllic, isolated life together is about to change forever.

This is a beautifully written story about the infinitely complex relationship between two best friends. Mildenhall captures the intricacy, the passion, the tension and the confusion of Kate’s friendship with Harriet and the subtle changes as they both grow into teenagers. I really liked how Mildenhall dealt with Kate’s frustration at being relegated to domestic chores when she loved to read, ride horses and study maps with her father. I felt like it was a heartfelt but realistic interpretation of gender inequality at the time. I also really Mildenhall’s depiction of the anxiety, fluidity and complexity of teenage romantic and sexual awakening.

I think there were only two things that bugged me a bit about this story. The first was that I felt like the ending was a bit flat. I felt like it should have been a sharper, swifter finish to a story that had built up over many chapters. All the speculation up until the historically event (which I won’t mention because of spoilers) seemed like it was spot on, but the story sort of petered out and the speculation afterwards just didn’t seem to have the same oomph. Maybe that was the more accurate interpretation, but I’m not sure it was the more satisfying one. The second thing that bugged me was Mildenhall’s treatment of her Aboriginal characters. I thought she did a really great job of shining a light on Kate and her family’s own prejudices and complacency. However, when it came to actually engaging with the character of the Aboriginal girl, I felt like Mildenhall fell into the trap of the Noble Savage trope. The Aboriginal girl seemed to solely exist to help Kate with her spiritual dilemma and journey towards tolerance and once those purposes had been filled, the girl was discarded.

This is a compelling, thought-provoking novel that generated quite a lot of goosebumps for me while I was reading it. A really excellent debut novel that shows that truth quite often is stranger than fiction.

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Revenants: The Odyssey Home

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I don’t read much fiction or even historical fiction about war, so I was a little apprehensive about this one. However, when I opened the parcel and saw the little courtesy bookmark, I knew I was going to give this one a red hot go, and boy am I glad I did.

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“Revenants: The Odyssey Home” by Scott Kauffman is a historical fiction novel set in a small town in the USA in the 1970s. Betsy, a high school sophomore cheerleader, is upset when her brother returns to fight in the Vietnam War, and is devastated when he doesn’t come home. As she starts to drift in school, her principal gives her an ultimatum: either she volunteers as a candy striper at the local veterans hospital, or she repeats her sophomore year. Although initially repulsed by the horrific injuries suffered by the young men there, Betsy perseveres and finds herself a niche. However, that’s not all she finds, and what she anticipated to be a boring summer turns into a hunt to solve the mystery of a nameless, faceless patient.

This book reads like a slice of time. Kauffman has an incredibly immersive style of writing, and uses slang from the era and local turns of phrase effortlessly in a manner reminiscent of Daniel Woodrell or Irvine Welsh. This is more than a story about war. This is a story about trauma: about the physical and emotional effects of war that trickle down through lives, families, and even through generations. I really learned a lot about this book. You can be as anti-war as you like, as I am, but that doesn’t erase the fact that war still happens and people still suffer. You don’t have to support war to support those people at risk of poverty, homelessness, disability, mental health issues and suicide. Betsy is a really great character who Kauffman imbues depth, complexity and flaws and he balances the mystery plot with the social commentary perfectly.

This was a really standout take on the impact of war and it really opened my eyes in more ways than one.

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