Alix Christie's novel Gutenberg's Apprentice is a stand-out debut that takes readers into Gutenberg’s 15th-century Mainz workshop to experience the frustration and exhilaration of designing, typesetting, and rolling the first printed Bible off the press. Christie picks 10 of her favorite historical novels.
The historical novels I admire inhabit their worlds so fully that as a reader I feel I'm breathing the air of that distant place or time. This has less to do with historical detail than with a freshness of language, tone and incident that makes the concerns of the characters so recognizably human that they feel almost contemporary. The ability to transport us into different minds is a hallmark of good literature generally; the bar is set even higher when a story's setting is truly foreign. Lots of period detail does not necessarily make a compelling story; many of my favorites in this list are short distillations that transport us poetically to another world.
1. The Inheritors by William Golding - Quite simply the most astonishing piece of historical ventriloquism ever. Golding wrote several historical novels, including his brilliant "The Spire," but this one is told from the point of view of characters few authors would dare to imagine: the Neanderthals. The short, intense encounter between "the people" and the invaders we recognize as Homo sapiens is poignant and terrible, seen as it is through the eyes of the pre-man Lok. Golding imagines Lok's consciousness as simple and sweet, possessed of pre-literate abilities to share ideas as "pictures," but no match for the aggressive new people, the "bone faces."
2. Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar - This novel-as-memoir of the Roman emperor Hadrian takes the form of a letter to Marcus Aurelius, his successor and adopted grandson. Yourcenar thought it absurd to try to recapture the speech of a distant era; the novel has no dialogue and virtually no plot. Yet this great leader's recollection of his life is utterly compelling. What Yourcenar captures is Hadrian's thought itself—his deeply considered and fascinating observations on leadership, love and statecraft. Nor is this exercise in "sustained empathy" purely philosophical; Hadrian's relationship with his lover Antinous is deeply affecting.
3. March by Geraldine Brooks - Brooks was among the first to imagine life beyond the page for a famous fictional character, and won the Pulitzer Prize for it. I loved "Little Women" (the sister I identified most with was, of course, Jo). Brooks' tale of the March sisters' absent father is a sympathetic portrait of the struggles of a decent man caught up in the moral complexity and violence of slavery and the Civil War. The battle scenes are eloquent and devastating: a vulture tugs "at a length of organ, glossy and brown." March's voice treads a fine line, managing to feel both of his time yet fresh. And it's a cracking good story, complete with long-buried secret and twist at the end.
4. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel - It took Mantel 20 years to find a publisher for this doorstopper of a book about the French Revolution. It's big and baggy and sometimes hard to follow, but showcases even better than her prize-winning Tudor series her uncanny ability to conjure real thinking, scheming, ardent people from the marble busts of the past. Zeroing in on Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins, architects of both revolution and terror, she bores with incredible acuity into their friendship and resentments and loves. Her focus is on the interior lives; she puts quite modern words in their minds and mouths. This isn't to everyone's taste, but the excitement and paranoia of the period imbue every page.
5. Pure by Andrew Miller - An opposite approach animates the tale of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, which starts and ends in a Versailles anteroom whose decadence says everything about the years just before the Revolution. The young engineer is to purify the Paris neighborhood of Les Halles by removing a festering, packed cemetery, Les Innocents. A disciple of the new rationalism, he takes on the horrid task, even as irrationality begins to bubble up. Miller trains his spotlight on one small quartier and its inhabitants, literally poisoned by the rot that seeps from the earth. Yet every page of the novel alludes subtly to the official rot that will soon be exposed at the Bastille. It's that rare novel that captures a period with the delicacy of an insect trapped in amber, yet reads like a thriller.
6. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden - Much has been made of how a male writer could so convincingly inhabit the character of a Japanese geisha. But the novel's real strength lies in the lucidity and modesty of its storytelling, a lack of fussiness that mirrors spare Japanese aesthetics. The best writing disappears: here we are at Sayuri's elbow, listening as she shares her life in all its degradations and aspirations, its foreignness and formal elegance. We watch as she is trained in the art of appearances and the byzantine patronage system. Golden's achievement is to open up a sealed and foreign world in the form of an affecting coming of age tale.
7. Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen - This slim novel tells the story of a girl who enters the order of the Sisters of the Crucifixion in 1906 in upstate New York. The arrival of Mariette, prone to "inner wrenchings," disturbs the convent's harmony when she apparently experiences Christ's stigmata. The story alternates between the perspectives of an investigating priest, Mariette herself and the nuns' response. Hansen's subtle interrogation of hysteria versus faith is rooted deeply in the rural turn-of-the-century workday, ruled by the canonical hours. Beyond its moral gravity, the novel is a wonder of language: nighthawks erupt, the night sky is "mooncreep and spire."
8. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - A shimmering novel that offers competing versions of historical truth. Atwood investigates the guilt or innocence of Grace Marks, convicted of double murder in a sensational case that riveted Canada in 1843. A psychiatrist who assesses her, the warden's family with whom she serves a life sentence, newspaper accounts and Grace herself all speak, but the shifting points of view underscore the unknowability. The novel is Victorian in size and acute in its depiction of women's lives in that era. Yet it's modern, too, in how it approaches criminality and gender—and tender toward Grace, whose restricted view is both blurred and poetic.
9. Enigma by Robert Harris - This prolific British historical novelist has covered everything from Pompeii to Nazi Germany to the Dreyfus Affair. His books are swiftly moving, well-plotted scenarios set into rigorously researched and believable worlds. Enigma tells a ripping story of spycraft in the intense secrecy of the British codebreaking operation during World War II. Set at Bletchley Park, the manor transformed into a number-crunching hive, the novel conveys the period's high anxiety and pressure, even if the mathematically challenged still struggle to grasp the workings of the famous "bombes" that cracked the Nazi "Enigma" code.
10. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco -The oddest melding of murder mystery and theological treatise ever penned, this ranks as the most original of historical fictions. In the 14th century, the novice Adso follows Oxford-educated monk William of Baskerville to an Italian monastery whose inhabitants are dying suspiciously. William's effort to solve the mystery is embedded in plots between Rome and secular powers, theological disputes, and subplots involving superstition and rare books that cross Borges with the DaVinci Code. In this hybrid, the unreliability of texts is a major theme. The theological discourses invite skimming, but the sheer inventive craziness of the enterprise is hugely entertaining.