Editorial: DHP’s top historical novels
Summer may be decidedly over, but reading for pleasure doesn’t have to be confined to the beach. Here are some of the DHP team’s favourite historical novels to keep you going as the evenings draw in.
David Mitchell imagines life for Europeans in late-eighteenth-century Japan and pays meticulous attention to historical detail in his novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. This was an era in which Japan was almost completely closed off to foreigners, and in which European traders were confined to activity in certain port areas. As such, Mitchell takes as his setting the artificial island of Dejima, constructed in Nagasaki Bay in the early-seventeenth century and, by Mitchell’s period, utilized by Dutch traders, one of whom is the novel’s protagonist. Mitchell captures the inherent strangeness, and occasional threat, which the Dutch in Dejima perceived in Japan, and the paradox of being both intimate with and kept at arm’s length from Japanese culture, as epitomized by de Zoet’s relationship with his love interest, Miss Aibagawa. I also give an honourable mention to Gore Vidal’s epic novelization of U.S. history, the 7-part Narratives of Empire, which I am currently making my way through!
Michelle Magorian has written a number of books for children and teenagers set in the 1940s, including the famous Goodnight Mister Tom, but this one is my favourite. The central character of the novel, ‘Rusty’ (or Virginia, as she is known to her parents) is faced with the difficulty of navigating her early teenage years at the same time as she returns from several years as an evacuee in America. No longer used to English manners and customs, and certainly not familiar with the rather cardboard texture of rationed bread, Rusty struggles to rebuild her relationship with her mother. Added to the fact that her mother is simultaneously struggling to fall back into married life with a man who has been away at war and does not approve of her new-found passion for fixing motor-vehicles, it might be easy to dismiss this book as too loaded with soap-opera drama. In fact it’s a story beautifully told, littered with period references, and as absorbing to me now as it was when I was eleven. Definitely one for any early teen who shows even a slight interest in history!
I’m a big fan of Edith Wharton’s fin-du-siècle New York and The Alienist reveals its underbelly. Prior to the term falling out of favour by the twentieth century, those who suffered from mental illnesses were believed to be ‘alienated’ from their true selves; those who studied them were called alienists. John Moore, a crime journalist, Dr Laszlo Kreizler, an eccentric psychiatrist and one such alienist, and Sara, a secretary aiming to be the first policewoman in New York, set out to solve a series of murders with what were then believed to be less than plausible methods: psychological profiling. It’s not simply a great, tantalising crime story, but also an exploration of psychiatry at the end of the nineteenth century set among the squalor of newly-arrived migrants from Europe, gangs, brothels, and the opera.
Random trivia: the author is the son of one of the leading figures (Lucien Carr) of the Beat Generation, of which Jack Kerouac was a part.
Laura Esquivel tells the story of Tita de La Garza, the youngest girl of a Mexican family who is forbidden to marry her true love Pedro Muzquiz. The tale unfolds against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution (c. 1910-21), an event of great national importance which periodically directly impacts the family at the ranch, for example when Mama Elena (Tita’s mother) is injured in a rebel raid. The focus of the book, however, is the domestic sphere to which Tita is confined. Each chapter begins with a recipe, highlighting the centrality of food and food preparation in her life. This allows us to enter into the culinary world of twentieth century Mexico: the commonality of tamales and tortillas alongside more elaborate foods consumed at important life events. Tita, in fact, understands the world through food, and it becomes a way of expressing her emotions (otherwise repressed by society) and a mechanism of power. When Pedro marries Tita’s sister the tears TIta expelled into the cake transfer her love sickness into the wedding guests. As well as being a riveting personal story of love, loss, and personal growth, Esquivel’s novel highlights the changes and conflicts within Mexican society at the turn of the twentieth century, and the roles of women within it.
- Dejima in Nagasaki Bay, 1820, Painting: British Museum. I, PHGCOM [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons.
- Evacuees arriving by train, 1940 – By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/A_group_of_children_arrive_at_Brent_station_near_Kingsbridge%2C_Devon%2C_after_being_evacuated_from_Bristol_in_1940._D2592.jpg.
- “Immigrant family, New York, 1889”. Photo. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.
- Haven, Gilbert (1821-1880), Women kneading tortillas, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b4/270-WOMAN_KNEADING_TORTILLAS.jpg