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Summer Reads: Historical Fiction

With sunshine just around the corner and those lovely long evenings to look forward to, it’s time to start putting together a summer reading list for those (brief, possibly illusory and yet still glorious) weekends at the beach or sitting out in the sun. If you enjoy historical fiction, or just want to try something new, here are five authors who excel at taking you back in time:

1) Mary Renault

Full disclosure: Mary Renault (1905-1983) is one of my favourite authors and the one who, to my mind, serves as the defining standard for historical fiction. Writing primarily about the Classical world, Renault is particularly famous for her Alexander the Great trilogy — Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games — which were written between 1969 and 1981, and cover Alexander’s life, loves, and eventual death, as well as the lives of his successors. I first read The Persian Boy when I was studying Classics in High School, and have been hooked ever since. Renault has a fantastic ability to transport the reader through her vivid settings and realistic characters, and her flexibility allows her to assume the mind-sets and beliefs of distant and long-dead cultures with considerable aplomb. She has also written several stand-alone novels in the same period, as well as some contemporary fiction and a non-fiction biography of Alexander, The Nature of Alexander, which is an excellent read in its own right.

2) A. S. Byatt

Another classic and personal favourite, A. S. Byatt writes fiction set in the Victorian era and the early 20th century. Her novel, Possession, was made into a film in 2002, and while (in my opinion) it is nowhere near as good as the book it is based on, it was the movie which introduced me to Byatt’s work back in the day, for which I will be forever grateful. Byatt has a dense, cerebral style, rich in detail, and she is particularly deft at crafting everyday moments of seemingly no importance, which later turn out to play a significant part in the story. Most impressive is her ability to seemingly conjure period-appropriate Victorian poetry and prose out of thin air. The plot of Possession deals with a pair of English Literature scholars in the 1980s, who uncover a previously-unknown love affair between two Victorian authors. They trace the development and tragic denouement of the relationship through the authors’ works — all of which Byatt apparently created herself. Her other novels show similar levels of detail and care, and are particularly notable for their absolutely gorgeous cover art.

3) Diane Armstrong

Armstrong is a recent discovery for me — I first encountered her a few weeks ago, when I began listening to the audiobook of her novel Nocturne, a story about the Warsaw ghetto and uprising during World War II. I will say up front that it took a while for her writing style to grow on me; she has a tendency to tell rather than show, and some of the time skips make the story a little difficult to follow. That being said, Armstrong’s previous work as a journalist has given her some serious research skills, and it shows. The details of early 20th century Polish life are painstakingly rendered without overwhelming the reader or sounding like a textbook, which is a rare talent in the historical fiction genre, while the progression of the war both inside and outside the Warsaw ghetto is sketched in carefully without distracting from the main plot. Apparently Armstrong herself is Polish, though she grew up in Australia, and has written several other books with similar themes.

4) Kate Riordan

Riordan is another new discovery. I originally picked up The Girl in the Photograph (also published as Fiercomb Manor) on a long car trip, read a few pages and forgot about it, but something about it stuck in my mind and I ended up going back and reading the whole thing in just a few days. Riordan’s writing is less polished than the others, as this is only her second novel, but she has a talent for creating memorable imagery and turns of phrase. In particular, I loved the atmosphere of the book — the dense heat and physical discomfort of the main character, who is several months pregnant at the height of summer, really came through even in the depths of the Dunedin winter when I read it. It is also hauntingly creepy, and the parallel storylines work really well together. Riordan has one other novel, Birdcage Walk, set in early 20th century London, which is going on my To Read list for sure.

5) Eleanor Catton

Last, but certainly not least, how could I forget our very own Eleanor Catton? Catton’s latest novel, The Luminaries, made headlines in 2013 as she became the youngest ever winner of the Man Booker Prize, and is well worth a look. Catton has a real ear for voice and character — The Luminaries almost reads as if it were written during the Victorian era — which makes her keenly observational humour all the more enjoyable. Even better, it’s set right here in New Zealand, during the West Coast Gold Rush, something which is rare enough that, I confess, it gave me a bit of a thrill to see in print. According to, there are plans in the works for producing a TV series based on the book, which will be interesting to see should it come to fruition. So far Catton has only written the one historical fiction novel, as well as one contemporary novel and several short stories, but given her success with The Luminaries, here’s hoping there will be more in the future!

Sarah Reese


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