Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Underground Railroad: Twice More

It took me two times to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. On my first effort I made it about a hundred pages in and decided it wasn’t for me. I was distracted when reading, I guess, or missed what was certainly in front of me: a tremendously good novel of (historical) fiction.

Set in the 19th century we follow Cora on her escapes from a slave plantation in Georgia. If you know anything about this book you know that it features a literal underground railroad: think boxcars and steam engines moving along metal tracks. And Cora does take that physical railroad with many stops along the way. The function of the railroad as a mode of transportation is one also to transport us to different scenes of racial inequality, white supremacy, brutality and horror – demonstrating the ways racism manifests in physical chains and in refusals of opportunity. That is the novel unravels what is ‘structural’ about racism, even while making structured the metaphorical railroad of history.

The novel explores these scenes and the complicated ways white characters live, exercise and wield their privilege with nuance. The efforts of sympathetic abolitionists are complicated by their own fears for their lives or standing in the community; the abhorrent beliefs of slave catchers are revealed as explanatory by the circulating ideas and belief structures of their time. Individuals are culpable, though their actions are positioned in relation to, or explained through, the wider structures that surround them in ways that offer if not empathy or absolution, than a profound recognition of the ways in which the readers’ present beliefs and actions must similarly be filtered through imperfect and unjust structures that are both bigger than and constituted by individuals.

Cora herself is great because she comes in to the narrative as a woman relying on no one, willing and able to exert power in the limited ways she has available to her, and sensitive to the dependencies and needs of those around her without being defined by them.

So yes, if you haven’t read this one yet (you probably have!), go! make haste! And if the first 100 pages don’t grip you… keep on.

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

Transcription: Spies in Every Day Life; or, Is Alexa Always Listening (yes)

Lady spies! Double agents! Domestic espionage! Kate Atkinson’s Transcription is a little burst of historical fiction delight. Principally set in the opening months of the Second World War (with some delightful temporal jumps to the 1950s and 1980s to add layers of complexity and trickiness), it follows Juliette Armstrong as she enters MI5 as a secretary-turned-undercover-agent and then follows her journey through the early years of the war and her first (only? no spoilers) mission for M15.

The novel refuses the reader’s desire for espionage to be all-glamorous or all-action, and instead gives refinement to the role of the spy by spending time with the slow details of waiting, watching, listening, and the necessarily ‘domestic’ tasks of caring relationships among and between members of the service. In this space Atkinson does particularly well, as the writing of each character is rich and full, as well as peppered with humour and sensitivity. Readers expecting explosions or middle-of-the-night hostage-taking would best look elsewhere though, as the plot unfolds here at a much gentler pace, and the ‘climactic’ moment in Juliette’s mission is somewhat… anti-climactic.

What it does especially well is revel in the genre of historical fiction. Freely inventing, while staying true to the spirit of the historical moment. There’s much to be admired in the way Atkinson balances what we do know about Armstrong’s particular mission (or ones like it) and what is likely to be true, as well as what makes sense for exploring the complexities of gender and sexuality in that moment (as in ours).

I was a big fan of Atkinson’s other major WWII novel, Life After Life, and like that one, Transcription takes a bit of time to feel fully committed. That said, if you’re partial to the slower burn, the witty, and the brilliantly historical, then off you go. Read!

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Filed under British literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

A Thousand Splendid Suns: I Just Don’t Believe in Happy Endings

I can’t explain it. I’m an optimist. An obnoxiously optimistic optimist, like I’ve had to consciously learn how to listen to folks when they’re having a problem and just say ‘that sucks’ rather than ‘oh oh! here’s why there’s a silver lining to your total misery.’ So how can it be that I’m so irritated by happy endings? I don’t find them plausible. Sure, I appreciate that sometimes things work out, but mostly? no. Which, okay, is at odds with my claim to optimism. Maybe it’s just that my outrageously privileged life has led me to believe that things will (mostly) work out for *me*, even while they mostly do *not* work out for other people/the world.

So cue my dissatisfaction with Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, which *spoiler* has a ‘happy’ (well happy-ish) ending. Don’t confuse the happy-ish ending with a happy story. The book is full to bursting with very difficult scenes of domestic abuse – many of which I ended up skimming over because I found the level of detail to be too much for me. And there are all kinds of moments of pain, grief, loss, disappointment, betrayal. So maybe Hosseini felt like after making the reader – and the characters – suffer through all that they do, they/we were owed a happy-ish ending? To me it just wasn’t plausible, though, that after all that had happened, that things would end out working out as they did,

Anyway – broad strokes, the book follows Mariam and Laila through thirty-odd years of Afghan history. I appreciated the historical fiction aspects, as I’ll admit to a spotty-to-non-existent understanding of pre-2000 Afghan history. Both characters are reasonably well drawn, and their particular motivations and interests thought through, though I would say that Laila is the more believable of the two. Mariam reads as a little underdeveloped, particularly in her transition from downtrodden wife to heroic sister/friend. Similarly, Rasheed, the abusive husband/father felt like a caricature to me. I’m not expecting a sympathetic portrait of a violent, abusive, volatile man. At the same time, I might have believed his character more if there was some nuance to his actions.

The effect of these somewhat underdeveloped characters was to have me doubt the reliability of the rest of the narrative. What I mean is that because I didn’t fully believe in the reality of the characters, I doubted the veracity of the rest of the narrative. Like if these characters were caricatures, maybe the depiction of Afghan life under the Taliban was being similarly reduced to its most extreme or most recognized elements. What I will say about that doubt, was that the reading prompted me to read more non-fiction to find out how closely the narrative followed ‘actual’ events and circumstances, so perhaps there’s a silver lining there…

And there we go. Full circle. A book I didn’t really like that I am – optimistically – suggesting might have some merit after all.

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Filed under Book Club, Fiction, Historical Fiction

Failed Attempts at Can Lit; or, Books I Started But Didn’t Finish in the Last Two Weeks

I started, and gave substantial effort (enough that I feel okay reviewing them), to two Can lit novels in the last couple of weeks. Both are books that I ought to have really liked but didn’t. I’ll take the blame. It’s summer. There are patios. And BBQs. (And work, family and responsibilities. Whatever.) Continue reading

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Filed under Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Worst Books