Saturday 13 December 2014

HISTORICAL FICTION PICKS FOR 2014 – by Elizabeth Fremantle

As the end of 2014 is approaching I felt it was time for a round-up, so here are some of the historical novels that have made an impression on me this year.

I'm a die-hard fan of Sarah Waters, but with THE PAYING GUESTS (Virago)
she surpassed all my expectations. The novel is set in the 1920s in a genteel suburb of South London where the socially awkward Frances Wray lives with her difficult mother. All the men of the family are gone and the two women strive to maintain appearances in their straightened circumstances. Frances feels their money worries may be resolved with the arrival of Len and Lil Barber who are the paying guests of the title. But the couple burst into the Wray's quiet world with their late-night drinking sessions, loud music and flirtatious behaviour. Inevitably Frances is drawn into this world with devastating consequences.

This begins as a story of love, told with intensity, passion and meticulous writing, but, as so often with Waters's narratives, it is not what it first seems and becomes increasingly dark as a central violent event takes hold of the story. Though it is long and meanders at times, I was completely gripped from start to finish.

I discovered Richard Skinner at a literary festival this summer and was intrigued to hear him talk about his novella, THE VELVET GENTLEMAN based on the life of Erik Satie, whose piano music has always captivated me. It is published in an anthology called THE MIRROR (Faber).

Skinner's approach to historical fiction is highly imaginative – when a novella begins with, 'I died yesterday,' you know your disbelief will be stretched in interesting ways. Satie tells his own story  from a kind of limbo presided over by a Mr Takahashi who is in charge of filtering arrivals through to the afterlife. But in order to move on Satie must choose a single memory to take with him, leaving all the others behind and this provides the opportunity for him to recollect the events of his life. He is characterised as a rather unpleasant individual, plodding miserably through life, but because of the originality of the setting this only serves to make the story more interesting, as does the portrait of a Paris populated by characters such as Cocteau, Picasso and Debussy. An intriguing and memorable read.

Imogen Robertson's latest novel THEFT OF LIFE (Headline), the fifth in her Westerman and Crowther series deals with the slave trade in Georgian London. Robertson draws on the lives of Oludah Equiano and Frances Glass for inspiration for her narrative which highlights the atrocities of the slave trade allowing the reader to understand the extent to which the drawing rooms of England were stained with the blood of slavery. When a slave trader is found dead, spreadeagled in a London cemetery, in what appears to be a case of straightforward revenge murder Robertson's doughty pair of proto-detectives discover that things are far more complex than they first appear. And so begins a gripping story of brutality and evil that uncovers dark revelations about the slave trade.

Elizabeth Buchan has changed direction with I CAN'T BEGIN TO TELL YOU (Penguin), a novel set in rural Denmark in the Second World War. Kay Eberstern is married into a well-to-do Danish family and finds world turned upside down with the Nazi occupation of her adopted country. Her husband Bror is determined to preserve his estate and family legacy by cooperating with the Germans but for Kay this is morally impossible and she becomes embroiled in resistance and espionage for British Intelligence, risking everything for what she believes to be right. This is a well researched and beautifully pitched novel that is full of revelations.

Suzannah Dunn has a way of getting to the heart of any story by exploring the edges of the action. In THE MAY BRIDE (Little Brown) it is the intriguing story of Katherine Filliol, wife of the ambitious courtier Edward Seymour, who was rumoured to have cuckolded him with his father. Fascinating enough on its own, this story is as much about its narrator as it is about its protagonist. She is the quiet observer at Wolf Hall, a woman who will become queen, Jane Seymour. Told with the benefit of her hindsight, allowing the silent narrative of her queenship and her ultimate tragedy to hover at the margins. Dunn is a master of the ordinary, making the mundane seem extraordinary with her attention to detail.

I don't normally read fiction which inhabits the same historical space as my own whilst writing but I read this in preparation for the Harrogate History Festival where we appeared together and I'm very glad I did.

What I will be reading over Christmas: I can't wait to hunker down with a hot water bottle and these two highly praised novels over the holidays.

I always look forward to Vanora Bennett's fiction, for the depth of her research and the deftness of her storytelling. Her latest novel THE WHITE RUSSIAN (Century), set in the Russian emigre community in Paris, tells of Evie a rebellious young American who leaves New York in search of art and adventure in Europe, finding herself embroiled in murder plots, conspiracies and illicit love affairs.

Antonia Hodgson's debut novel THE DEVIL IN THE MARCHALSEA (Hodder) has been recommended to me by so many people that I simply have to read it. Set in London in 1727 the wayward Tom Hawkins finds himself in the Marchalsea prison, a place gripped by fear and suspicion in the wake of the brutal murder of one of the inmates and Tom is sharing a cell with the prime suspect. He must risk everything to uncover the truth, or be the next to die. It sounds un-put-downable.

My own novel SISTERS OF TREASON sequel to QUEEN'S GAMBIT is out in hardback and will be out in paperback on January 29th. For more about me and my books, go to


Sue Purkiss said...

Lots of books - and writers - new to me here; thank you, Liz!

Sally Zigmond said...

It was inspiring to see you up on the stage at the Harrogate History Festival and, having told myself firmly NOT to keep buying yet more books, I bought 2 EF titles which I throughout enjoyed reading! I was also delighted with 'The Paying Guests' (which I wrote about in The HNR Review), 'Theft of Lif'e and 'The May Bride'. But you have given me more 'must read' titles I didn't spot. Thank you.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks. I've just noted these suggestions down in my handy "Books to Read" journal, which is kept by the computer & radio. (Far better than the "scraps of paper" method I'd used before.) Looking forward to finding these.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I do love historical crime fiction. Is it possible to read Imogen's book without having read the others?

Carol Drinkwater said...

I passed on your post to Richard Skinner and Elizabeth Buchan - both are thrilled. I also love Sarah Waters and The Paying Guests

Celia Rees said...

I'm a die hard Sarah W fan, too, so I've already read the Paying Guests, but some of the others were new to me. Thanks for the recommendations, Elizabeth.