Hi, I struggled a bit with the definition of “historical novel” when it came to it having suggested the theme in the first place. Literature is so diverse as well as so available to us that definitions for our bok group purposes should perhaps be seen as hooks to hang a list of intereting titles from. The interweb did reveal a working definition: "a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience. Some readers go so far as to say that a novel should only be called “historical” if the plot reflects its historical period so well that the story could not have occurred at any other time in history." The following list pays some attention to that definition but I thought it more interesting to also see how writers have played with narratives in broadly histroical settings. Call me a post modernist if you like, I've had worse. The list is shortened from my initial trawl which you can see on this Amazon wish list:[www.amazon.co.uk
I, Claudius, Robert Graves, first published 1934, 416 pages
Despised for his weakness and regarded by his family as little more than a stammering fool, the nobleman Claudius quietly survives the intrigues, bloody purges and mounting cruelty of the imperial Roman dynasties. In I, Claudius he watches from the sidelines to record the reigns of its emperors: from the wise Augustus and his villainous wife Livia to the sadistic Tiberius and the insane excesses of Caligula. Written in the form of Claudius' autobiography, this is the first part of Robert Graves's brilliant account of the madness and debauchery of ancient Rome, and stands as one of the most celebrated, gripping historical novels ever written.
I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles), who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as 'Claudius the Idiot', or 'That Claudius', or 'Claudius the Stammerer', a.d. 41 or 'Clau-Clau-Claudius', or at best as 'Poor Uncle Claudius', am now about to write this strange history of my life ; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the 'golden predicament' from which I have never since become disentangled.
The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco, first published 1983, 512 pages
The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate.When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the over of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, The Name of the Rose is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.
`Few historical novels come close to acquiring the literary gravitas of Umberto Eco's superior thriller, perhaps because it is as much concerned with semiotics and the science of deductive reasoning as it is in conjuring up the fearful atmosphere of a 14th-century Italian monastery' --Metro
Jack Maggs, Peter Carey, first published 1997, 368 pages
The Booker Prize-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda returns to the nineteenth century in an utterly captivating mystery. The year is 1837 and a stranger is prowling London. He is Jack Maggs, an illegal returnee from the prison island of Australia. He has the demeanor of a savage and the skills of a hardened criminal, and he is risking his life on seeking vengeance and reconciliation.
Installing himself within the household of the genteel grocer Percy Buckle, Maggs soon attracts the attention of a cross section of London society. Saucy Mercy Larkin wants him for a mate. The writer Tobias Oates wants to possess his soul through hypnosis. But Maggs is obsessed with a plan of his own. And as all the various schemes converge, Maggs rises into the center, a dark looming figure, at once frightening, mysterious, and compelling. Not since Caleb Carr's The Alienist have the shadowy city streets of the nineteenth century lit up with such mystery and romance.
'rewriting a page-turner from the past offers some major perils, not the least of them being comparisons to the original. Carey, however, more than withstands the test of time, alluding to the formality of Victorian prose without ever bending over backward to duplicate it. In addition, his eye for physical detail--and the ways in which such details open small or large windows onto character--is on par with that of Dickens. Here, for example, he pins down both the body and soul of a household servant: "Miss Mott was lean and sinewy and there was nowhere much for such a violent shiver to hide itself. Consequently it went right up her spine and disappeared inside her little white cap and then, just when it seemed lost, it came out the other side and pulled up the ends of her thin mouth in a grimace." Throw in a wicked mastery of period slang, a subplot about Victorian mesmerism (of which Dickens was, in fact, a practitioner) and an amazing storytelling gift, and you have a novel which meets and exceeds almost any expectation one might bring to it.'
Austerlitz, W G Sebald, first published 2001, 304 pages
Austerlitz, the internationally acclaimed masterpiece by “one of the most gripping writers imaginable” (The New York Review of Books), is the story of a man’s search for the answer to his life’s central riddle. A small child when he comes to England on a Kindertransport in the summer of 1939, one Jacques Aus-terlitz is told nothing of his real family by the Welsh Methodist minister and his wife who raise him. When he is a much older man, fleeting memories return to him, and obeying an instinct he only dimly understands, he follows their trail back to the world he left behind a half century before. There, faced with the void at the heart of twentieth-century Europe, he struggles to rescue his heritage from oblivion.
'Sebald writes about a man (Austerlitz) who despite his lushly satisfying intellectual life of an architectural historian finds himself in search of his roots. That those roots were blurred by the atrocites of Hitler's Kindertransport program (Jewish children were sent to England by parents hoping for their safety as the wings of evil flapped menacingly in the air) only makes Austerlitz' journey to self discovery the more poignant. His revisiting the sites of his true parents in Prague and Marienbad and Terezinbad, Paris, and Belgium produce some of the most beautifully wrought elegies found in the written word. His walking among the horrors of the obsessive compulsive Hitlerian Final Solution Program is devasting in the way that only researching one's history from time-lapsed memories and visual stimuli can create.'
Regeneration, Pat Barker, first published 1991, 256 pages
Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, 1917, where army psychiatrist William Rivers is treating shell-shocked soldiers. Under his care are the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, as well as mute Billy Prior, who is only able to communicate by means of pencil and paper. Rivers’s job is to make the men in his charge healthy enough to fight. Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients’ minds the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors of the front …
'the Western Front is ever-present in the minds of the soldiers Rivers is treating, and that's what this novel is really about: the effect of war on the mind and the sometimes futile, sometimes valiant ways the men try and confront and overcome their experiences.
It's a tremendously moving novel, all the more so as Rivers comes to care for and about the men receiving treatment, and feels an immense conflict between his duty as army psychiatrist to get the men fit and back to duty and his own knowledge of the horrors that await them there.'
Day, A L Kennedy, first published 2007, 288 pages
The novel tells of a man who was a tail-gunner in a Lancaster bomber in World War II, and who subsequently becomes an extra in a film about prisoners of war.
'Meticulously researched, there's dark humour, understated tragedy and one of the most successful fictional attempts I can recall to get right inside the skin of another human being; and given that human being - Alfie, a young tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber - is so different from the author in so many ways, it's an incredible feat. I can't recommend this book highly enough, and will be passing it on to friends and family - and strangers in the street, probably!'