I keep this running tab of favorite books of the year on my laptop, which I assume I’ll share at some point in the future, probably in early December when people say they’re sick of lists that document the best books of the year, but they read them anyway. I won’t give too much away, but I’ll say that early on in this year, memoirs and short story collections are really dominating, and I haven’t been that into novels. I don’t know if that’s because I’m just more into fiction in short bursts and nonfiction right now, or if because, frankly, a lot of novels just don’t sound that interesting, but there is an interesting connection between the two 2016 novels that have floored me this year.
“What I knew is that when I would describe the subject of my novel to friends—an opera singer in the court of France’s Second Empire is afraid her voice is cursed, dooming her to repeat the fates of her roles—they would look at me, confused, only to respond, “Oh, you’re writing a historical novel,’” Alexander Chee wrote for The New Republic about how readers and writers react to historical fiction. Chee, as you may have guessed, wrote one of the 2016 novels that I’m most excited about. The other, Danielle Dutton’s mesmerizing Margaret the First, which is described by the publisher as “a contemporary novel set in the past,” is also just as easily described as a historical novel, but like with Chee’s book, I swear that not meant to sound like an insult. It’s a very good thing.
The term “historical novel” is a loaded one, as Chee does a far more eloquent job pointing out in his New Republic piece. There are some astonishingly bad ones out there; I know this because I’ve read a bunch of them. Some are over-researched and stiff, others are under-researched and corny; some are written in a style that might come off as too contemporary and not true to the time, others read like the writer came up with the dialect the characters speak by watching films that might take place in the same time as the novel. Some have really incredibly stupid and somewhat insulting plots, other are just dry and boring. As a rule of thumb, I tend to approach historical novels very cautiously.
So what do Chee and Dutton offer that others may not? Simple: more novel, less history lesson. Both writers put story and craft before everything; the time and place is all part of it, but the unforgettable characters and writing make their novels feel timeless, and not relegated to something you’d pick off of a history professor’s shelf or that gets weighted down by the author trying so damn hard that it feels forced and boring. Novels are supposed to transport us somewhere, so going backwards in time with characters that actually existed at one point shouldn’t be such a tasteless experience. I’m all for historical novels because of that, I just don’t find many I like. Two released so close together make me think that maybe we’re on the verge of something, and that maybe it’s a new golden era for the historical novel.
I don’t normally find myself longing for a good historical novel since I’ve had so many bad experiences with them in the past (note: I have read a few very good historical novels as well, just more bad than good), but after finishing and loving Chee and Dutton’s books, I’m hopeful that I’ll find a few more to my liking and the trend continues. But if these are the only two I end up liking for some time, that’s just fine by me as well. They’re both shining examples of what great historical novels could be.