Narrowing down a best-of-the-year list is always daunting. So let’s just say these 10 historical novels, arranged in alphabetical order, are the ones that ranked highest in my personal triage. Some are easy reads, others are more demanding. All seem to me to have lasting appeal — a pretty safe bet, since three of the 10 authors (Gurnah, Tokarczuk and Pamuk) are Nobel laureates.
Best known for his 20th-century thrillers, Robert Harris goes back to late-17th-century Restoration Britain and Puritan New England with ACT OF OBLIVION, a fast-paced, wonderfully detailed account of the hunt for the Parliamentarians who signed Charles I’s death warrant. Most of the characters have been resurrected from the history books, except for the avenger who pursues two of the regicides with the obsessive vigor only a personal vendetta can provide.
In Abdulrazak Gurnah’s AFTERLIVES, the complex legacies of colonialism are vividly conveyed through the Tanzanian-born writer’s tale of strivers, soldiers and simple village souls trying to survive the vicious realities of German East Africa in the early 1900s. At its core are young people variously scarred by past experiences of war, slavery and prejudice, yet somehow hoping for a better future.
The hero of David Wright Faladé’s tension-filled Civil War novel, BLACK CLOUD RISING, is as emotionally torn as the country he inhabits. The son of an enslaved North Carolina woman, he enlists in the Union Army bearing the name of the white father who owned him. Yet his military career, maneuvering through plantations close to his old home and ruled by a code of blind obedience, will suggest that “freedom” is not as simple a concept as he’d once thought.
Olga Tokarczuk’s THE BOOKS OF JACOB is a sprawling, mythic yet vibrantly intimate rendition of the world of the controversial 18th-century Eastern European religious leader Jacob Frank, as viewed from a kaleidoscopic variety of perspectives. Frank’s life was an exercise in reinvention — involving Judaism, Islam and Christianity — at a time when society as a whole was on the brink of great change.
HERITAGE, by Miguel Bonnefoy, elegantly displays an entire century of one family’s life in a brief, intermittently magic realist account of a French immigrant in Chile whose descendants are unable to break their bonds with his homeland. Much of the action centers on the clan’s Santiago mansion, with its exotic, overflowing aviary, long-hidden cache of dinosaur bones and replica of Charles Lindbergh’s monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis.
Set in a British penal colony in the remote Andaman Islands just before and during World War II, Uzma Aslam Khan’s THE MIRACULOUS TRUE HISTORY OF NOMI ALI is a suspenseful, thought-provoking challenge to simple assumptions about enemies and friends, loyalty and betrayal. A young girl called Nomi Ali, the daughter of a prisoner whose entire family must share his incarceration, is only one of the many characters whose histories are entangled here.
Melody Razak’s impressive debut novel, MOTH, portrays the changing fortunes of a well-intentioned Brahmin family as India and Pakistan are carved from the British Raj, an experience of Partition that begins with gentle comedy, then gradually descends into distinctly un-gentle tragedy, particularly for the family’s teenage daughter, whose sheltered life will be suddenly — and violently — upended.
Filled with intriguing historical minutiae (both real and invented) and set at the turn of the 20th century on an imaginary island in the eastern Mediterranean, Orhan Pamuk’s new novel, NIGHTS OF PLAGUE — translated by Ekin Oklap — uses a murder to explore political, religious and scientific questions that seem uncannily relevant to our own era. It’s also something of a literary whodunit, framed as the work of an author other than Pamuk himself.
In Suzette Mayr’s THE SLEEPING CAR PORTER — a display of storytelling tailor-made for adaptation as a Wes Anderson movie — a gay Black porter rides the rails in 1920s Canada, coping with a horde of difficult long-haul passengers, including a child who appears to have permanently attached herself to his leg. Terrified that a breach of the railway’s restrictive rules will get him fired before he can save enough money for dental school, he amuses himself — and keeps awake on grueling shifts — by imagining the medical horrors that lie behind the smiles (or grimaces) of his clientele.
Benjamin and Helen Rask are the married couple at the center of TRUST, Hernan Diaz’s formidable exploration of wealth, social class and self-definition. At first, thanks to the novel-within-the-novel that leads off this puzzle box of narratives, they seem to be American aristocrats who might have been conjured by Edith Wharton. But what to make of the notes for a “memoir” that appear next? Or the rather different section that follows, told in the voice of a blue-collar Brooklyn secretary, the daughter of a devout anarchist? A final passage, upending many of our assumptions, brilliantly riffs on the multiple meanings of the book’s seemingly simple title.
Alida Becker is a former editor at the Book Review.