Tag Archives: Historical Novel Society

More from the Historical Novels Review Fall Issue

The following reviews first appeared in the November 2015 online and print editions of the Historical Novels Review, published by the Historical Novel Society.


Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 11.55.47 AMIn an interesting life-imitates-art twist, the widow of famed author Oscar Hijuelos was the force behind the posthumous publication of this, his final work, which in part describes the effort of the widow of famed author and explorer Henry Morton Stanley to posthumously publish his final work. The novel traces the long and unlikely friendship between Welshman Stanley and American Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, which started when they were young unknowns and continued as they became two of the most famous authors in the English language. We get a more detailed look at Stanley, from his unhappy and impoverished childhood through the fame that started with his successful rescue of missionary David Livingstone and later exploration—many charged it exploitation—of the Congo for Belgium’s King Leopold, and finally a hard-won, bittersweet happiness with his wife, socialite and famed portraitist Dorothy Tennant, and their adopted son, Denzil. Hijuelos presents a man scarred by rejection and desperate to prove himself, in sharp contrast to Samuel Clemens, who seems forever comfortable in his own skin, even as life and his own poor financial choices deal him some heavy blows.

Though the novel was more than ten years in the making, it’s tempting to wonder whether Hijuelos considered it finished. The author fails to make his characters flesh and blood, instead holding everyone at arm’s length. It reads so much like a biography for the first two-thirds that there is a temptation to cry foul when the author finally ascribes thoughts or feelings to his subjects. A biography must demure on details not in the historical record, but Hijuelos chose to make these historical figures characters in a novel without offering his readers the intimacy a novel should provide. It is that lack of intimacy that makes this interesting work ultimately unsatisfying.

A FREE STATE, Tom Piazza, Harper

Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 11.59.01 AMTom Piazza often writes about jazz and blues, and their various ethnic and cultural origins and influences. In his latest novel, A Free State, Piazza reaches even farther back in American music traditions to reflect on the odd phenomenon of the minstrel show, which was all the rage in the North ahead of the Civil War. The straightforward story brings together Joseph—who later takes the name Henry Sims—an escaped slave who is also a talented musician and performer; James, the performer/manager of a Philadelphia-based minstrel troupe that needs a big headliner to remain competitive; and Tull Burton, a brutal slave hunter sent to recapture Joseph/Henry dead or alive.

Henry is the son of a slave who was the current favorite of the master, which explains Henry’s light skin and green eyes. He and James have parallel stories: they are both self-made men from distinctly underprivileged circumstances who developed their natural talents to make a better life. The primary difference is that it was not against the law for James to run away from his home and change his name. When James sees Henry’s mesmerizing street performance, he knows that the Virginia Harmonists, “purveyors of Ethiopian airs, plantation jigs, and every variety of Negro jollity,” need him to join their show, though that’s against the law, too. Henry is a born showman in a time and place that demands he remain hidden. To be free, to escape being hunted, Henry must make it to Canada, but it’s not where he wants to be. If he has to go where he doesn’t want to go, how is that freedom? Piazza leaves the threads of the story open-ended, with that question left unanswered.

A PLACE WE KNEW WELL, Susan Carol McCarthy, Bantam

Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 12.10.23 PMIt turns out that Susan Carol McCarthy’s latest novel, A Place We Knew Well, is a far truer story than readers may at first imagine. McCarthy lived in Orlando, Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that white-knuckle showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that unfolded over little more than a week in October 1962. Florida residents found themselves engulfed in the staggering military build-up that occurred with unprecedented speed to aim America’s collective might at the island just 90 miles off the tip of the Keys. McCarthy sent out questionnaires to collect recollections of others who were in high school at the time, as she was; one response apparently served as the basis for the family story she relates against this dark slice of American history.

Wes Avery is an upstanding member of his community, a WWII Air Force veteran who owns a local gas and service station and is a devoted husband to Sarah and father to Charlotte, a junior in high school. He continues to be amazed at his own good luck at how his life has turned out so far. Unfortunately, matching the speed with which America’s confrontation with Cuba and Moscow escalates, Wes’s good luck begins to disintegrate under the weight of long-held family secrets. What’s most compelling about the story is its vivid reminder of the suddenness of the crisis, the shared knowledge that both sides were for the first time armed with weapons that could wipe out all of mankind, and the real sense that tomorrow might not arrive. McCarthy’s use of detail—the concern over a lack of fallout shelters since Florida’s high water table means there are no basements, the abrupt stranglehold on Florida’s economy as a result of the military build-up—adds to the novel’s authenticity.

Historical Novels Review Summer Issue

The following three reviews first appeared in the August 2015 online and print editions of the Historical Novels Review, published by the Historical Novel Society.

LANDFALLS, Naomi J. Williams, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 311 pp

To say that Landfalls, Naomi J. Williams’ debut novel, is thoroughly delightful may sound too dismissive of what is a deeply researched and ingeniously told story, but there it is: it’s a joy to read. The book is a reimagining of the Lapérouse expedition, which set sail from France in 1785 on an ambitious scientific voyage to explore beyond the boundaries of the known world, and was not heard from again after it departed Botany Bay in 1788. Virtually none of the story takes place while the two ships of the expedition—the Boussole and the Astrolabe—are underway, since it is in fact about the landfalls that the voyage makes. The story is told chronologically starting with the outfitting of the voyage’s stat-of-the-art navigational equipment in England, and moving forward on the journey to Chile, Alaska, Macao, Russia, and beyond. Differences in geography aside, what gives this story its unique appeal is that each chapter is told from a different person’s point of view. Various members of the expedition, their relatives, people they meet, even some whom they don’t, are all represented here, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even as letters or reports. Each one is believable and fully rendered, in equal measures to dramatic, comedic, or tragic effect. The language Williams uses for each of her characters is immediately accessible, even modern, and yet it feels genuine to the time, place, and person.

A significant historical record exists of this voyage that never returned, and it’s clear that Williams used much of it. This novel must have been a vast undertaking, but the reader sees none of that heavy lifting. Instead Williams simply weaves in the details that allow her to take her readers around the world on a wondrous journey of discovery.


THE BURIED GIANT, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 317 pp

In considering the synopsis of his seventh novel, The Buried Giant, long-time fans of Kazuo Ishiguro’s restrained and always-compelling prose may find themselves puzzled at what seems like a departure for him: in sixth century Britain, in a primitive land of fog, rain, ogres, and dragons, an old married couple decides finally to visit a son they haven’t seen in years. They cannot remember what caused their separation, and they’re not even sure which village he lives in. In fact, none of their fellow villagers seem able to form or keep memories, nor do they notice the lack. Nonetheless, Axl and Beatrice are determined to overcome the fog of forgetfulness as they set out on a fraught journey. Along the way, they pick up traveling companions who are on quests of their own, and begin to recover fragments of their lost memory, little of it comforting. Together, they find answers to the mysteries that have plagued them and their country for an age, though the discovery seems destined to unleash even greater woe. This is an Arthurian fairy tale for grown-ups, and one that asks quietly pointed questions, such as how much of a person’s identity is held in the memories she carries, or whether, when it comes to seeking justice—or is it simply vengeance?—for a great wrong, it isn’t better for everyone to let sleeping dragons lie.

In Ishiguro’s hands, the tale seems less fantastic than simply of another time, when ogres and pixies were part of the natural landscape, much like wooly mammoths on the ancient Siberian plain. Characters interact with a formality that seems almost Kabuki-like, but it feels organic to the time and place. And by now, Ishiguro’s fans should no longer be surprised at how he can still surprise us.


THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, VOLUME 1: SEARCH FOR MY HEART: A NOVEL, Larry Kramer, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015, 880 pp

In his latest novel, Larry Kramer wonders at the masochistic tendencies of Americans, to have invited the likes of Cotton Mather and John Winthrop to judge us so harshly and to instill in us an abiding shame over everything that makes us human. He seems to count on that masochism, however, to imagine people will read this book, 800+ pages of painful and ugly history tracing the origin of both America and what he calls the UC: the Underlying Condition, HIV/AIDS.

The conceit here is that Kramer’s alter ego Fred Lemish is writing this history, and he collects around him a cast of oddball characters who contribute their knowledge and scholarship to the effort. Lemish starts this history in pre-human times to argue that the UC has been with us always, biding its time. We even hear directly from the UC, self-aware and plotting its own advancement. The volume simply quits sometime after WWII. Presumably Volume II brings us into present day.

This book wants to grab Americans by their lapels, shake them, and bellow, “Stop with the blind hero worship, the whitewashed legends of this country! Stop imagining that it was noble and high-minded! It was ugly! It’s still ugly! Stop ignoring all the evidence that’s right in front of you!” But Kramer can’t have it both ways. He argues that only heterosexuals or closeted gays have written history, chronically hiding unpleasant truths, but here he is hiding his version of history inside of a novel, thereby letting himself and his readers off the hook.

It’s odd that Kramer calls this Search for My Heart, since he hammers home an image of an America that is heartless, brutal, rapacious, and cruel. This is the book that only Kramer could write, but for whom has he written it?