Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Wanting

Historical fiction linking colonial Tasmania with Dickens’ London

Content warning: racism, colonisation

This book wasn’t my first choice and it didn’t have a particularly auspicious beginning. In my one and only attempt at a blind date with a book, at a bookstore with the punny name Hooked on Books which has long since closed in the coastal town Batemans Bay, I found myself unhappily with a book that was fourth in a series that had not read. Now, I appreciate that the point of a blind date with a book is that you get a book wrapped in brown paper and have no idea what might be inside. However, I didn’t really think it was in the spirit of the exercise to wrap a book that you needed to have read the first three in the series to appreciate. Anyway, I reluctantly asked to swap, and they reluctantly agreed, and I walked away with this book. It sat on my bookshelf half unwrapped for three years, and when I found myself with a second Flanagan book on my to-read pile, I thought it was about time I read the first.

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“Wanting” by Richard Flanagan is a historical fiction novel about the explorer Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane Franklin, his stint as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land and the cultural impact of his disappearance while on an arctic expedition. The book mostly splits between the story of Mathinna, an Aboriginal girl adopted then soon after abandoned by the Franklins, and Charles Dickens’ involvement in a play inspired by Sir Franklin’s disappearance. The two stories are connected not only by the Franklins, but by the theme of desire.

I really liked the beginning of this novel. The Protector is a fantastic character in his abhorrence and Flanagan’s sense of dramatic irony is second to none. I felt like it was a strong start and Flanagan captured the brutality, the indifference and the arbitrariness of colonisation and the devastating impact it had on the Aboriginal people of Tasmania. Flanagan is a strong writer and brings to life the terrible contrast between the increasing affluence of the white settlers, and the increasing desolation of the indigenous population.

The beginning was good, but there were so many things that irked me about this book. The juxtaposition between Dickens’ chapters and Mathinna’s chapters was jarring. I can see what Flanagan was trying to do, but I just don’t think it got there. Neither Dickens nor Franklin were compelling enough characters and I honestly eye-rolled my entire way through each of Dickens’ chapters. Mathinna was much more compelling, but I was very unhappy with the way that she was handled. Her story was told as a tragedy, and instead of giving her any agency at all, Flanagan depicts her as a victim subjected to horrific (and, in my opinion, largely unnecessary) violence.

This actually isn’t the first book I have read about the Franklins and Mathinna, and a lot of the criticisms I had about that book, I am going to echo again here. I just don’t think that the story of what happened to the original people of Tasmania needs to be bolstered by shoehorning in figures from the British literary scene of the 1800s. I wish that Flanagan had just excised the entire Dickens story and had stuck with Tasmania. The Franklins weren’t that interesting, and I wasn’t sure that cutting Franklin’s daughter Eleanor out was particularly strategic either because that was a missed opportunity for exploring the family’s interaction with Mathinna.

Anyway, I think that Mathinna’s story needs to be told and that someone, probably one of the incredible Aboriginal writers being published at the moment, needs to do it justice.

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

Sweet Bitter Cane

Italian-Australian family saga

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Sweet Bitter Cane” by G S Johnson is a family saga about a young woman called Amelia who, after a wedding with a stand-in for the groom in Italy, moves to Queensland to meet her new husband Italo and support him in growing sugarcane. Although young, Amelia is smart and resilient and soon overcomes her language barriers and finds her place managing the financial side of the farm. However, haunted by a connection she has with her neighbour’s son Fergus and increasingly isolated by her social and political choices, when the war breaks out and Italians are targeted, the secrets and nationalist pride Amelia harboured to keep herself safe suddenly threaten to destroy everything her family has built.

This is an epic story that traces the life of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who leaves everything she knows behind to start a new life in a country that largely doesn’t welcome her. Johnson does an admirable job of setting the geographic and political scene of a seemingly hostile new life and has a particular flair for character development. Amelia hardens as the story progresses, and it’s unusual (and refreshing!) to see such an evolution of a character while still retaining the essence of who she is. Johnson isn’t afraid to explore Amelia’s mistakes to their full consequences and her flaws and poor choices juxtaposed against her successes make her all the more relatable. The internment of Italians during WWII is another forgotten pocket of Australian history, and Johnson written a nuanced account of something that truly happened to people living here.

For the most part, I was impressed at how Johnson told Amelia’s story but one thing that I was perplexed about throughout the book was the appeal of Fergus. While Amelia’s character remained interesting and engaging throughout the novel, I wasn’t always on board with her relationships and how she managed them, and most particularly so the connection she had with Fergus. Although for the most part the pacing of the novel was good, I did feel at times that some of the writing was a little too descriptive and could have been condensed a little more.

Regardless, this is an interesting and important story about the experience of women during a period of Australian history rarely discussed.

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The Victory Garden

British historical fiction about the Women’s Land Army

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist.

The Victory Garden - Rhys Bowen

“The Victory Garden” by Rhys Bowen is a historical fiction novel set in the UK during World War I. Emily Bryce has lived a sheltered and privileged life, and is prevented by her parents from becoming a nurse. However, when she meets an Australian pilot on a chaperoned hospital visit with her mother, she is inspired to do more to help out with the war efforts. Too late to study nursing, Emily instead joins the Women’s Land Army. After helping out farmers with their harvest, Emily is reassigned to a large estate to help tame the garden of an elderly widow and moves in with friends to an abandoned cottage near the herb garden. However, when Emily finds her future suddenly very uncertain and approaching at speed, she finds solace in journals left behind by a woman whose life seems to closely parallel her own.

I’ve read a few of Bowen’s books now, and this one is one of my favourites so far. I have a vague memory of learning about the Women’s Land Army when I was in school and the topic being completely bland. This story brings this real turning point in women’s rights to life and Emily is a fantastic character to explore issues of class, the value of women’s work, stigma around single mothers and family rejection. I especially enjoyed Emily’s time living, boarding and working with an incredibly diverse range of women and helping to prove that women can do the same work that men could do. I also really liked that while there were some romantic elements to the story, it certainly was not the main part of the book.

I think that while the first half of the book was incredibly engaging, I found the second half of the book a little slower. Isolated and unable to leave, the second half of the book involves a lot more introspection and a little bit of a mystery which was quite a different pace to the immersive feminist history of the first half. I did feel like the ending was a little bit of a deus ex machina, and that perhaps the book could have used a little more conflict or drama towards the end.

This is a great topic for a historical novel, and I really enjoyed putting myself in the shoes of a ‘land girl’ and reading about such a pivotal point in history for women. It was also a very easy read.

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The Victory Garden: A Novel

 

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The Song of Achilles

Queer fantasy retelling of Greek mythology 

I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m part of a feminist fantasy book club, and for our first meeting of the year, this was our set book. Unfortunately I was running a little late and forgot to take photos of the wonderful Greek feast one of our members made, but I did read the book.

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“The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller is a fantasy retelling of the Greek myth of Achilles. The story is told from the perspective of Patroclus, a disgraced prince who is banished to the kingdom of Peleus after a terrible accident. Although initially isolated and lonely, Patroclus is soon befriended by Peleus’ godlike son Achilles. As the boys grow up together, under the tutelage of the centaur Chiron, they form an inseparable bond. However, increasingly determined to fulfill his destiny as the greatest warrior of all time, Achilles is drawn into a war that will put their love to the test.

The first half of this book was brilliant. Miller brought a unique and romantic perspective to this classic myth and a sense of realism to the characters of Patroclus and Achilles. I especially loved the dreamy and idyllic chapters in Chiron’s home where the two boys could explore their feelings for each other and their own hopes and dreams for the future without interference from the outside world. I thought that Miller did a good job of exploring Patroclus’ feelings of inadequacy juxtaposed against Achilles’ sense of entitlement, and the first half of the book was extremely engaging.

However, the second half of the book, when the young men go off to the Trojan war, I found to be a lot more difficult to get through. It wasn’t quite so obvious for the first half of the book, but for the second half it becomes abundantly clear that Patroclus didn’t actually have any purpose or work apart from being with Achilles. It was very late in the book that he started taking an interest in healing, which made him quite a frustrating point of view character up until that point. Also, I completely understand that according to the mythology Achilles spends 10 years fighting the Trojan war, but even though it only took up a couple of hundred pages in the book, the war part really seemed to drag on. I did appreciate that the war camp turned into its own ecosystem, but it just seemed a bit relentless that 10 years would pass with so little happening.

Anyway, an excellent example of direct queer representation that was a bit slow-going plot-wise at times.

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The Song of Achilles

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Heart’s Blood

Historical fantasy retelling of classic fairy tale

Content warning: family violence, disability

It’s no secret that I adore Juliet Marillier and her beautiful and whimsical historical fantasy novels. I generally try to space them out, but I am getting towards the end of all the books she’s written (so far), so it has been a while since I have picked one up. Anyway, approaching the end of the year, I was in dire need for a comfort read, and I was very eager to give this standalone novel a go.

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“Heart’s Blood” by Juliet Marillier is a historical fantasy novel that reimagines the classic story of “Beauty and the Beast“. The story follows a young woman called Caitrin who is on the run from her abusive family home. Trained as a scribe, when she hears of a job vacancy at the mysterious fortress known as Whistling Tor, locals warn her against it and the disfigured chieftain called Anluan. However when Caitrin arrives, she finds that fear of the known is far worse than fear of the unknown and soon settles into the strange rhythm of the household. While she attempts a seemingly insurmountable task that others before her have failed, she discovers that ugliness is often much more than skin deep.

Marillier, as always, gently coaxes into life sensitive and well-considered characters who overcome hardship and find strength and comfort in one-another. Marillier’s book are and continue to be incredibly inclusive and tackle modern issues through a historical lens. Although this is not the first book of hers with a character with a disability, this book is the first book of hers I have read that really explores the issue of family violence. I thought that she handled Caitrin’s experiences, and the toll they took on her self-esteem and identity, very adeptly and drew out the issues of vulnerability and courage for both Caitrin and Anluan very well. I also really liked that Marillier again made a main character with a disability someone who is capable and desirable.

However, this wasn’t my favourite of Marillier’s books. The plot twist about the true nature of the evil at Whistling Tor I saw coming a mile away, and I felt like a large proportion of the book was spent waiting for the ending I knew was on its way. While I did fully respect that Marillier incorporated themes of family violence into her book, I felt that it could have been a little less distant relatives come take advantage and a little more close to home like unfortunately so many domestic violence stories are. I also felt a little that the way that part of the story is resolved got a bit Jane Eyre towards the end with a bit of deus ex machina in the form of a cart of people going by at just the right time.

Regardless, this is a sweet and enjoyable story and a unique retelling of a classic fairy tale. I read this book in no time at all, and look forward to the next Marillier book I tackle.

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Wolf Hall

Quintessential historical fiction about the Tudors

Earlier this year I had grand plans to participate in the Man Booker 50 Challenge to celebrate 50 years of one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes. I was going to try to read as many Man Booker Prize winners as I could by the deadline to go into the running for tickets to the Golden Man Booker Prize award night in the UK. Anyway, although I picked up a bunch of previous winners, I only managed to read one in time. The others stayed on my bookshelf, waiting for the right opportunity, and when I went on holiday recently I decided to take this one with me.

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“Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel is a historical fiction novel about self-made man Thomas Cromwell and his role in the court of Henry VIII. The story begins with Cromwell as a young boy in a dysfunctional family at the turn of the 16th century. The novel progresses in fits and starts and follows Cromwell’s rise to power and fortune as a lawyer, entrepreneur, moneylender and confidant to England’s most powerful people.

Given the popularity of books about the Tudors, I think it’s safe to say that this is the book about the Tudors. Mantel has an incredibly immersive and detailed style of writing, and transports the reader directly into the grand halls of Henry XXIII’s kingdom. She writes in first person which makes you almost feel like the story is happening in real time. She unravels the genius of Cromwell’s mind, and weaves a story of subtlety, opportunity and shifting alliances. I really enjoyed the depiction of Anne Boleyn, and incremental trade of intimacies between herself and the king. 

I think probably the only thing that I struggled with is just the enormous amount of politics. I find reading about political intrigue a bit of a challenge at the best of times, and it’s a testimony to how good this book is that I managed to get through most of it pretty easily. However, considering this a book built almost completely on political history, occasionally it does feel a little bit relentless. 

Anyway, this is one of those books that I feel absolutely did deserve a Booker Prize, and if you’re a fan of Tudor history this is the book for you. 

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Book of Colours

A little while ago I was invited to convene a panel at Muse Bookshop with two fabulous authors, and this is the second book.

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“Book of Colours” by Robyn Cadwallader is a historical fiction novel set in London in 1321. The book follows three people linked by the creation of an illuminated book of prayers. There is Lady Mathilda, for whom the book has been commissioned. There is the talented and a little roguish limner Will, walking as far as he can from a past he wants to escape. Then there is patient yet frustrated Gemma, the limner’s wife who dreams of recognition if not for herself, for her daughter. Each character is inextricably linked by the illuminated book, and none will come away unchanged.

This is the second book I’ve read by Cadwallader, and she truly knows her subject matter. Cadwallader immerses the reader in medieval life, and invites the reader to walk with her through the muddy London streets. This book is a fantastic example of an author getting the balance of detail just perfect. Cadwallader uses enough meticulous research to breathe life into a story, but weaves it delicately into the tapestry of the novel without it overwhelming the book.

Another thing about Cadwallader’s writing that stood out to me again is her ability to create such complex characters who are relatable despite being set in a world nearly 700 years ago. Cadwallader’s characters grapple with universal themes of interpersonal conflict, guilt, love and ambition. Will is a bit of a chameleon, constantly shifting and compelling though perhaps not ever entirely likeable. Mathilda has to wear the more traditional female costume society has prepared for her, but is forced to step up when her living situation changes drastically.

I think Will and Mathilda were interesting enough, but for me it was by far Gemma who stole the show. It was her chapters I couldn’t wait for. It was her little limner’s tidbits that I scoured greedily. I loved the interplay between her warm, maternal side and her unacknowledged but fiercely capable side as a limner. Not unlike the way I felt about the suggestion of the haunting in “The Anchoress”, I wasn’t quite sure about the gargoyle in this book. However like the marginalia dancing in the borders, or perhaps even like the rose in John’s illuminations, I’m starting to think that perhaps a touch of supernatural is Cadwallader’s watermark.

A fascinating book, especially for lovers of the physical book, that conjures a long ago world and the kinds of people who lived in it.

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