Joan Didion once wrote that "we tell ourselves stories in order to live." That’s true, but we also read stories in order to find out how others lived — doubly so when those people lived in other times and places. Nothing achieves that quite like historical fiction, especially when fastidious authors devote as much time to researching their books as they do to writing them. With travel plans on hold and many of us looking for new ways to explore the great indoors, consider reading these seven historical novels.
The Luminaries: 1860s New Zealand
Learning about New Zealand’s 1860s gold rush — starting with the fact that the island nation even had one — is just one reason to read Eleanor Catton’s brilliant, mystifying novel. Here are some others: Its structure is based on the lunar cycle, meaning that it’s divided into 12 sections, each of which is shorter than the last, and all 12 of its main characters correspond to a zodiac sign. You don’t have to believe in astrology to believe in The Luminaries, however. Its 840 pages are intimidating in the beginning, but that celestial structure lends the book a narrative momentum that will leave you wishing for more by the time it reaches its beautiful conclusion — the first section is a full 360 pages, while the last six don’t even add up to 50.
Beyond the cosmic structure, The Luminaries is an ensemble murder mystery that would leave even Agatha Christie guessing. The dozen characters who find themselves drawn together by circumstance give "the impression of a party accidentally met," as the first sentence puts it. And, if you prefer to read the book before seeing the movie, now is the time to pick up this tome. A six-episode miniseries starring Eva Green recently premiered in New Zealand and should arrive on our shores sooner rather than later.
The Plot Against America: 1940s New Jersey
More of an alternate history than an actual historical novel, Philip Roth’s 2004 page-turner imagines what might have happened if Charles Lindbergh had not only run for President in 1940 but defeated Franklin Roosevelt in a landslide. Namely: a wave of antisemitism, isolationism, and Nazi appeasement that’s all the more disturbing for the fact that it's seen through the eyes of a Jewish adolescent. The Plot Against America feels even less outlandish now than it did when it was first published, with HBO’s recent miniseries adaptation bringing the book to television in convincing fashion.
If reading the novel puts you in the mood for more of Roth’s work — and it almost certainly will — you’re in luck: the Pulitzer Prize winner had many classics to his name, including American Pastoral, Portnoy’s Complaint, Goodbye, Columbus, and The Human Stain.
Laurus: 15th-Century Russia
How many novels set in Medieval Russia have you read? Whether the answer is one or 100, Laurus is essential. Eugene Vodolazkin’s exploration of mysticism, medicine, and miracles spans several countries and centuries while retaining a central focus: Arseny, a religious healer whose life takes on near-cosmic importance the longer it goes on. Vodolazkin is an actual Russian medievalist, meaning that Laurus, for all its many flights of fancy, is ultimately rooted in fact. Endlessly strange and occasionally profound, it begins in a small village and eventually makes its way to the 1771 plague that ravaged Russia in general and Moscow in particular; remarkably, each step along the way is as fascinating as those two bookends.
Wolf Hall: 16th-Century England
All historical fiction requires a good deal of research, but the amount of work that Hilary Mantel put into Wolf Hall is impressive even by that measure. She spent years digging into the history of her story: the era of Thomas Cromwell's life that began in 1500 and ended with the death of Sir Thomas More 35 years later. Cromwell was a major player in the court of Henry VIII, making him a highly influential figure — even if few knew his contributions prior to the publication of Wolf Hall, which takes its name from the Wulfhall manor house in Wiltshire, England.
The Leopard: 1860s Italy
What first inspires curiosity about The Leopard is its title. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's 1958 classic is called Il Gattopardo in the original Italian, which refers to a different animal: the serval, a smaller African wild cat found every once in a blue moon near the area of Sicily where this lush tale is set. It centers around Don Fabrizio Corbera, a 19th-century nobleman whose reign as the Prince of Salina may soon be coming to an end — The Leopard begins in 1860, at the height of Risorgimento ("resurgence," also known as the Italian unification), which marked the birth of the Kingdom of Italy and the end of at least one way of life.
Read the mournful, elegiac novel before watching Luchino Visconti's 1963 adaptation starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale, which ranked 57th on the British Film Institute’s most recent list of the greatest films of all time.
Blood Meridian: 1850s Texas
With the subtitle Or the Evening Redness in the West and one of the most disturbing conclusions in all of literature, Cormac McCarthy's epic anti-Western is unlike any book you’ll ever read. Following a wayward teenager referred to simply as "the kid," whose birth coincides with the 1833 Leonids meteor shower, it begins in Tennessee before moving westward to Texas — home of the infamous, scalp-hunting Glanton gang and the profoundly terrifying Judge Holden. The Judge stands 7 feet tall, has no body hair whatsoever, and is as ruthlessly violent as he is intellectually imposing; for these reasons and more, he's been described as "short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature."
Vast and abstruse despite a length of just 351 pages, and bursting with lines like "...and they were watching, out there past men's knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea," Blood Meridian is a singular experience that will leave you rethinking every one of the subjects it touches on.
Love in the Time of Cholera: 19th-Century Colombia
He’s better known for One Hundred Years of Solitude, but Gabriel García Márquez's most swoon-worthy novel would have to be Love in the Time of Cholera. Romantic and heartbreaking in the best of ways, it charts the forbidden bond that forms between Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza in their youth and continues as circumstance brings them in and out of each other's lives over the course of decades. Though the precise location is never given, much of the story takes place in an unnamed Caribbean port city that many believe is based on both Cartagena and Barranquilla; the book begins in the 1880s and spans more than half a century.
Feature photo credit: Aaron Burden/ Unsplash