Historical Fiction

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Date of Publication: 1998, Picador USA

Number of Pages: 226

Synopsis (from back cover): Passionate, profound, and deeply moving, The Hours is the story of three women: Clarissa Vaughan, who one New York morning goes about planning a party in honor of a beloved friend; Laura Brown, who in a 1950s Los Angeles suburb slowly begins to feel the constraints of a perfect family and home; and Virginia Woolf, recuperating with her husband in a London suburb, and beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway. By the end of the novel, the stories have intertwined, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace, demonstrating Michael Cunningham’s deep empathy for his characters as well as the extraordinary resonance of his prose.

Review: I had several reasons to read this book. First, Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite books and the film adaptation of The Hours is one of my favorite movies. So, I was prepared for something profound, but I was not expecting a book that would speak to me the way this one did. Michael Cunningham has a way of describing his characters’ thoughts and feelings that makes me feel like he’s inside my own mind. The fears, sensations, and oddities of Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa are so much like my own and it forced private feelings that I have never really acknowledged to come to the surface. Reading this book was a a very personal experience for me, but I believe that any reader will be able to enjoy it. Cunningham explores an incredible variety of emotions and demonstrates a unique understanding of human nature. I would recommend this book to pretty much everyone I know.

Rating: 10/10

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Germinal by Émile Zola

Date of Publication: 1885 (my edition, 1998 Oxford World’s Classics)

Number of Pages: 524

Synopsis (from back cover): Zola’s masterpiece of working life, Germinal (1885), exposes the inhuman conditions of French miners in the 1860s. The central figure, Étienne Lantier, is an outsider who enters the community and eventually leads his fellow-miners in a strike against pay-cuts which becomes a losing battle against starvation, repression, and sabotage. Yet despite the violence and disillusion which rock the mining community to its foundations, Lantier retains his belief in the ultimate germination of a new society, leading to a better world.

Germinal is a dramatic novel of working life, sexual desire, and everyday relationships, but it is also a complex novel of ideas, given fresh vigour and power in this new translation.

Review: For those who don’t know, Germinal is the month of April on the Revolutionary calendar, instituted in France in the late eighteenth century. The idea of germination, the springing forth of new life, pervades the entire story, and it is rich with symbolism throughout. Étienne, a newcomer who quickly becomes the leader of the workers’ rebellion, literally plants the seeds of socialism and the promise of a new world order in the minds of these otherwise simple miners. But throughout the book, the lives of the miners remain bleak, going from simply struggling to make each day’s soup and constantly running out of coffee, to simply dying from starvation during the strike, which lasts for more than two months.

But in spite of their poverty and general misery, the miners still enjoy a level of freedom that the bourgeoisie, whole live a life of idleness and ignorance among their workers, do not. They are free to openly engage in sexual activities, which is something that is absolutely forbidden to the upper classes. Even the manager of the mine, M. Hennebeau, as he looks out his window at the swarm of strikers, envies them for their emotional freedom, his own marriage being nothing more than a loveless sham.

There are events in the book that will shock the uninformed reader. The miners regularly beat their wives and children, and the mothers look on their children as little more than wage-earners in some respects. A reader must place himself in the period and environment in which this story takes place. These mining families are holding on with both hands, and struggle everyday just to simply survive. So it’s no wonder that when a child’s legs are crushed in a tragic mining accident, his mother laments the loss of his income more than his injuries and pain. In the end, this book simply shows that the will to survive, and to achieve a just world, can conquer anything.

Rating: 10/10

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Date of Publication: 2005, Little. Brown and Company

Number of Pages: 642

Synopsis (from inside cover): Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters. The letters are all addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor,” and they plunge her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an inconceivable evil hidden in the depths of history.

The letters provide links to one of the darkest powers that humanity has ever known – and to a centuries-long quest to find the source of that darkness and wipe it out. It is a quest for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the legend of Dracula. Generations of historians have risked their reputations, their sanity, and even their lives to learn the truth about Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. Now one young woman must decide whether to take up this quest herself – to follow her father in a hunt that nearly brought him to ruin years ago, when he was a vibrant young scholar and her mother was still alive.

Review: As a university student about to return to classes in a few weeks, I found an enthusiasm for this very scholarly novel, which I ultimately needed. The main problem with this book is that is stays true to the nature of historical research: searching through libraries with painstaking care, reading ancient texts, puzzling through inconsistencies. This is detective work at its finest, but even my study-starved mind became a little impatient at all the studying required to solve the mystery of Dracula.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the way Kostova weaves her way through time, from stories from ancient Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria, to the fevered investigations spanning two generations in the 20th century. Secrets long buried in history are constantly being revealed and there’s a twist in almost every chapter. Kostova is also adept at bringing the environment in which these incredible events take place beautifully to life. I almost felt as if I were traveling through the streets of Istanbul and the countryside of Romania. Kostova also brings this intensity to her storytelling. It was at one moment incredibly frightening, and at another moment so moving it brought tears to my eyes.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in history, including the history of Dracula. The Historian is a wonderful and cerebral twist on the traditional Dracula legend.

Rating: 9/10

Lady of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Date of Publication: 1998

Number of Pages: 456

Synopsis (from back cover): Journey to a time before King Arthur as Marion Zimmer Bradley brings the mesmerizing world of Avalon brilliantly to life in this spellbinding novel of epic grandeur – the story of three remarkable women who alter the fortunes of Roman Britain as they fight to reclaim the magic and traditions of a once-glorious past….

Caillean, the young priestess fated to become Lady of Avalon, who rescues and raises the orphaned Gawen – heir to a mystic and dangerous royal line…Dierna, who must use all her strength, wisdom, and love to guide Avalon through treacherous political waters and veil the island from a hostile world…Viviane, Lady of the Lake and keeper of the Grail, destined for true greatness as she prepares Avalon for the coming of a legendary king…

Review: This is the first book of the Avalon series that I have read, and I’m glad I started with it. Although there are events referred to that obviously occur in other books, it’s not done in a way that takes away from the story. This is the book that sets up the events in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s popular masterpiece, The Mists of Avalon, so I felt fortunate to be beginning here.

This is the first book I have thoroughly enjoyed in a long time, and it’s turned me into a devoted fan of this author. There are elements of several genres in this book: historical fiction, fantasy, and romance, making it appealing to many different kinds of readers. But what will really appeal to people is the superb story-telling and the realistic and complex characters. There are few characters, even among the leading Ladies of Avalon, who could be called wholly good or bad. Some make good decisions and some make such bad decisions that they adversely alter the course of history. The women portrayed are completely believable, with human foibles that all of us have, but at the same time they possess a power that infuses the story with magic. This is a book that celebrates womanhood in all its forms, from the innocent virgin to the croaking hag. If you’re a woman, you will find yourself somewhere in this book. And if you’re a man, well, there’s plenty of fighting going on to keep even you interested!

Rating: 10/10

Hope Leslie by Catharine Maria Sedgwick

Date of Publication: 1827Number of Pages: 371

Synopsis: Set in seventeenth-century New England, Hope Leslie portrays early American life and celebrates the role of women in building the republic. A counterpoint to the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, this frontier romance challenges the conventional view of Indians, tackles interracial marriage and cross-cultural friendship, and claims for women their rightful places in history. At the center of the novel are two friends. Hope Leslie, a spirited thinker in a repressive Puritan society, fights for justice for the Indians and asserts the independence of women. Magawisca, the passionate daughter of a Pequot chief, braves her father’s wrath to save a white man and risks her freedom to reunite Hope with her long-lost sister, captured as a child by the Pequots. Amply plotted, with unforgettable characters, Hope Leslie is a rich, compelling, deeply satisfying novel. ~blurb from back cover

Review: This is an extraordinary historical romance about the complex relationship between the Puritan settlers of New England and the Native Americans they encountered. Hope Leslie is a spirited heroine who seems out of place in this repressive society; but at the same time, she is able to bring out the best of those around her. She has an amazing effect on her friends, and has almost a sorceress-like quality with which she bends them to her will. In no way, however, is she an anti-Christian heroine. She is as virtuous as any Puritan woman, but she also prefers to follow the desires of her own emotions. She is alike in many ways to Everell Fletcher, her childhood companion, who gets caught up in her adventures.

This story is very much a romance, in that the main characters, Hope, Everell, and Magawisca, a Pequot princess, possess qualities that ordinary people don’t. They commit acts of fierce loyalty and sacrifice, and have the willingness sacrificing their lives or freedom to help an innocent. The other characters in the book, however virtuous, are nonetheless content to trust in Providence. They do not go out of their way, risking everything, to do what they feel and know is right.

Hope Leslie is also an historical novel. It depicts not only real people, like Governor Winthrop and Cotton Mather, but also real events, like the tragic Pequot War. Magawisca relates the story of the massacre of her village like a real witness. In reality, many of the unfortunate Pequot survivors were sold into slavery, or forced to become servants, which is exactly what happens to Magawisca and her brother, Oneco. Although the story itself is fiction, one can readily see that the portrayal of real-life people and events gives it a credibility that other novels set in the period do not have. It is likely that events much like the ones depicted in Hope Leslie did take place, in some form.

Rating: 8.5/10