Two must-read historical novels, and a few more

Oh, covid, what have you done to me? I have a lot of catching up to do in this blog. I promised reviews of two important new historical novels, and here they finally are. I couldn’t resist reviewing two others I’ve recently read, as well.

Two historical novels, both published in 2019, take a speculative look backward at classical times just as remote from us as science fiction: Madeline Miller’s Circe and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.

Circe

This novel is actually a kind of hybrid: a novel that combines historically imagined archaic Greece with fantasty elements incorporating Greek mythology, especially the sorceress Circe who plays such a prominent role in Homer’s Odyssey. It’s a fascinating character study of a woman torn between her divine origins and her all-too-human emotions and roles: as woman, lover, parent. Miller is a wonderful and accessible writer who makes this very ancient story come alive. She is an acclaimed historical novelist with a degree in classics. Her novel, The Song of Achilles (2012) was also a New York Times best-seller.

The Silence of the Girls

Barker’s novel, too, begins with one of Homer’s two classic epics–in this case, The Iliad. Unlike Miller, Barker’s novel doesn’t have any magic in it; it’s the all-too-human story of what happens to women during the savagery of war. That the woman in question is Briseis, the queen captured and sulked over by the Greek hero Achilles, doesn’t prevent this book from being as contemporary as any novel set in any war-torn region. Barker is an amazing novelist. Some of her novels are set in contemporary times, and others are historical novels. I especially admire her Regeneration trilogy, about the World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon. Whatever books she writes, whenever she sets them, she has to be considered one of our era’s best novelists.

In a category by itself: The Mirror and the Light

This blog entry wouldn’t be complete without another quick review of another recent historical novel (2020), the third in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about England during the reign of Henry VIII and the life of his most important minister, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell, often maligned in history and fiction (A Man For All Seasons, for example, where he is the villain), rose from humble origins to the office of Lord Privy Seal, the most powerful man in England short of the king himself. If you love fluffy “historical” novels that are little more than dressed-up romance fiction, or even well-meant but rather dumbed-down historical fiction like Phillipa Gregory’s (which I do enjoy–and as a writer of fairly fluffy novels myself, who am I to complain?), Hilary Mantel’s books may not be for you. They are huge. The Mirror and the Light clocks in at over 800 pages, and the first two in the trilogy, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) are almost equally hefty. When you read them, though, you will enter the world of Thomas Cromwell and Tudor England as if you lived in it. The novels are meticulously researched, but you don’t even think about that as you are swept into a world so far removed from your own, yet in its realpolitik, its family joys and problems, its unbearable personal betrayals, so very close. Some have said this third novel is not as good as the first two. I beg to differ. I could hardly bear to read the last hundred pages, and when I finished, I have to admit I was devastated. Absolutely, completely devastated. I was also absolutely struck dumb with admiration. This is how big a nut-case I am. I know. . .I know. . .”so many books, so little time.” Nevertheless. I got out my copy of Wolf Hall, re-read it, kept on going through Bring Up the Bodies, and finished with a re-reading of The Mirror and the Light. The ending of The Mirror and the Light circles right back to the beginning of Wolf Hall. In the very best sense, Mantel’s trilogy is one enormous super-novel. I was on fire to see how she brought it off. The answer? Brilliantly. If you have the attention and the patience for a long and very involved series of novels, read these. They are masterpieces.

Hild

Let me mention one more very long and involved historical novel, Nicola Griffith’s Hild (2013, a bit less recent than the others I’ve reviewed in this post). The politics of Hild are just as convoluted as anything in Hilary Mantel’s novels, and the world Giffith conjures up is even more remote from us than Tudor England. Hild is a young girl from Anglo-Saxon England who grows up to be St. Hilda of Whitby, but you’d never know it from this novel. There are other novels about St. Hilda. I haven’t read them and don’t know if they take any kind of reverent tone toward their subject. Griffith’s novel is having none of that. It shows us what it’s like to be a pagan seeress at a moment in English history where Christianity is on the verge of pushing out the old religions of the land–and where Roman Christianity is on the verge of pushing out an earlier, more indigenous brand of Christianity. As far as Hild is concerned, though, all that Christian stuff is alien and strange. As she and the people in her world come to terms with the passing of the old ways, including the old religion, their decisions are driven more by politics and expediency than anything else. This novel is an amazing coming-of-age story for a young woman caught between two worlds. It is beautifully written, supposedly the first book in a trilogy, although I haven’t seen any news of the next two. This book is long, complex, and not pretty. It creates a gritty reality, right down to details about the landscape, and the way people dress, and the way people love, and the way people talk and think. I’m afraid to say it takes an anthropologist’s eye to its subject, because that makes it sound dry. It’s passionate and real. I loved it. I’m eagerly waiting for the next two!

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