Anna James’ workshop on Writing Historical Fiction is set to be one of the highlights of the spring programme. Anna was one of Spread the Word’s emerging writers on the PLATFORM scheme and is currently completing her verse novel set in the world of seventeenth-century fake news. Here she picks five of her favourite historical fiction reads.
What I love about these five novels is the ambition and invention with which they recreate the past. They each experiment with form and voice to create rich narratives that foreground the complexity of telling history.
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
This is the book that first made me want to write historical fiction. Rushdie’s tale of India’s independence is epic, subversive, funny, and deeply idiosyncratic. I remember being thrilled by the boldness of the narrative voice and by the giddy possibilities of storytelling.
Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
This is my favourite of Atwood’s novels. The skill with which she pieces together the story of a nineteenth-century Canadian murderess using first and third person narratives, fictional letters and real historical documents is impressive. Yet it is Grace’s voice that steals the show: in turn sensual, disarming, chilling, and always ambiguous.
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
This book has been top of my list when friends have asked for recommendations this year. Gyasi’s narrative crosses between two continents, tracing the impact of slavery and its lasting trauma through seven generations of one family. I was awed by her ability to represent such a complex period of history through intimate portraits of individuals each at a particular moment in their own stories.
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
When I think of this novel, it is of Ondaatje’s intense, sensory scenes: the English patient lying in his painted bower and dreaming of the desert; Hana cradled by the cool, dry bowl of the fountain; Kirpal gazing at the Sistine Chapel ceiling through his rifle’s telescope in the yellow light of a flare. These beautifully-realised moments capture the fractured experiences of his characters in the wake of the Second World War.
History: The Home Movie, Craig Raine
This is what I am currently reading, since I’m fascinated by the narrative possibilities of verse, with its long history of epic storytelling. Raine’s narrative spans twentieth-century European history through the stories of two families, with his poetry creating surprising and arresting images and interconnections.
For more details and to book on to Anna’s workshop, head here.