Great historical novels are fully immersed in time, place and have a tangible effect of bringing you into a time period that you may otherwise never know. This is what’s truly exhilerating about the historical novel. The setting and surroundings become like a fully formed character in the novel. Whether we’re talking about a British pub just before WWII, or the painterly skies of the Dutch Golden Age. A cramped and freezing hut in Iceland in the 19th century or a dangerously plague-ridden village in England in 1666. Here are some suspenseful historical novels where you just don’t know what will happen next!
Tulip Fever takes place in Amsterdam in the 1630’s during a time of immense wealth that is brought into the country by merchants and tulip sellers. A bored and wealthy young house wife and an attractive artist have a romantic tryst. Yet far from being predictable, the plot here has plenty of surprising twists and turns. A short and fast-paced book with lots of vibrant, vivid depictions of life under painters skies. I found this book to be thoroughly enjoyable as an escape hatch from the world for an afternoon or a weekend. Read more
Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is a trilogy of novels in one. It’s as bleak as its setting – the rain strewn wintery London streets in the weeks and months before World War II. This is the ultimate tale of longing, loneliness and sexual desperation. A young man Bob works hard as a waiter and scrimps and saves. He dreams of one day becoming a famous novelist. Then he meets a pretty girl Jenny. Who is capricious, immature and toys with his emotions horribly. It’s a disturbing, edge of your seat thriller that you will enjoy.
Burial Rites is a bittersweet and melancholy tale of a woman named Agnes Magnusdottir. Set in Iceland in 1829 the book showcases Agnes’ life and all of its shimmering promise and how her life has been tragically hemmed in on all sides by poverty, circumstances and bad luck. When Agnes is accused of murder, we the readers are left in the dark. This is heart-stopping stuff, inspired by a true crime story. Hannah Kent has woven a remarkable tale that is totally bewitching and magical in how it draws you in. Read more
His Bloody Project by author Graeme Macrae Burnet recounts the story of the triple murder and subsequent trial of accused 17 year old crofter Roderick McRae, who brutally slays three people in his remote Scottish village in 1896. There’s a lot of layers to this onion of a novel, with class and moral politics being main themes that sit uncomfortably alongside the brutal and viscerally described murders. His Bloody Project was an outlier for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and in my book it deserved to win the big prize.
This is the powerful and haunting story of the 1666 plague and how one bolt of cloth makes its way from London to an isolated village. There a housemaid named Anne Frith watches as her fellow villagers all succumb to the disease. She tends to them faithfully. Sooner after, a horrible witch hunt ensues. This is her story of survival, spiritual sanctuary personal strength. There is a meditative quality of hope to this book that permeates the book, even during the bleakest times of the plague year. It has become even more relevant in 2020 than what it was when it was written in 2001. It’s really classic historical fiction in my opinion.
In the boom years of Thatcher’s Britain when the wealthy got more wealthy, young Nick Guest moves in as a lodger in the home of a rich friend’s house whose father is a Conservative party politician. Over the years Nick, finds himself in awe of and embedded within this family and has a series of love affairs and misguided adventures. This is an emotionally charged and sensitive novel about power, money, class, sexuality and family. It’s a compelling, sweeping and enormous novel.
She Rises is an erotic, sea-faring adventure by debut novelist Kate Worsley. Under the tutelage of mentor and maven of the historical novel Sarah Waters, Kate Worsley has created a beautifully sculpted jewel of a novel set in an Essex fishing village in 1740. A word to the wise, the book is very raunchy and contains a lot of sex and violence. If that is not a deterrent to you (and is in fact an attraction) then dive right in, you will love it! Read more
Honorary mentions should go to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and The Secret History and also the amazing historical books by Margaret Atwood including The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace…I just haven’t got around to reviewing these, but these are also classics in the suspenseful historical fiction genre! Do you have any more to add? I would love to know!!!