Living through literature

Back in February 2016 (I know – it seems like a bygone age) I wrote a blog post about my top 5 novels featuring real-life historical figures. Fast forward to 2020, and I’m having a conversation with my sister during which she asked me to recommend her some historical fiction, with the proviso that it mustn’t feature any characters who really existed. Even a cursory glance along my shelves made it pretty clear that was going to be a difficult task; I hadn’t really thought about it before, but a huge proportion of the historical fiction I read is based around real events or people. In the 4 years since I first counted down my favourites, I’ve read loads more fiction in the same vein, so I thought it was time for part two! So here are 5 more fantastic novels that reimagine 5 fascinating lives.

Kepler by John Banville

It took me a little while to get into this novel. At first I was a bit confounded by the writing style, but once I’d settled into it I became completely hooked. Kepler isn’t always the most unequivocally loveable of characters, but you nevertheless get completely caught up in his all-consuming quest to chart the movements of the planets and reconcile them within a universal geometry. The recreation of the Renaissance world, with its religious divides and capricious power figures who can make or break you according to the direction of the wind, is second to none.

Longing by J D Landis

Many people will be familiar with the name Robert Schumann but fewer will have heard of his wife. Clara Wieck was a superb pianist who was perhaps better known in her own lifetime than she is now; this book charts the life of the great composer and the woman who helped bring his work to the world. It’s a delicately balanced combination of the exquisitely beautiful and the achingly sad as the love story progresses hand in hand with Schumann’s increasingly severe mental illness. It’s dense, emotionally rich and will completely take you over.

Z by Therese Anne Fowler

I picked this up not because I was a particular fan of either of the Fitzgerald’s work but simply because I fancied the glamorous Jazz Age setting. As it turns out, there’s very little that was truly glamorous about the Fitzgeralds’ story: the wild parties, fashionable hotels and encounters with high society are exotic and intoxicating, but ultimately a veil that barely conceals the bleak reality of two people who are being ravaged by the combined effects of alcohol, jealousy, bitterness and resentment. I knew next to nothing about their lives before reading this novel, but it spurred me on to seek out some factual writing on the subject; it seems their story was truly as sad as is painted here.

The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

Another musical tale now: that of Shostakovich’s famous Seventh Symphony. The author herself admits in the brief introduction that although the protagonists were real people she has used a lot of creative license, especially around Shostakovich’s motivation for writing the symphony; however, for me that didn’t detract in any way from the novel. It captures all too acutely the agony and desperation of the citizens living in the besieged city of Leningrad during the Second World War, and the sense of powerlessness in the face of destitution, starvation and death. I haven’t met anyone else who’s read it sadly, but I really think this book deserves to be better known than it currently is.

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville

I’ve saved the best for last in this top 5; honestly, I was so blown away by this book I’ve struggled to find enough superlatives to do it justice. It tells the story of Diego Velazquez’s life as court painter to Philip IV of Spain in the seventeenth century, yet it goes far beyond a mere fictionalised biography. It’s about the ability of art to capture the truth behind the façade, and the relationship between rulers and the painters who present their faces to the world. It’s about the invisible being made visible, about life being captured for eternity by brush strokes on canvas and what that means for the painter, the painted and those who come after them. If you only read one historical novel this year, I implore you to make it this one.

Thanks for reading. This is a genre I really love, so if you have any of your own real-life historical fiction must-reads that you think I should try, do leave a comment!

Related posts:

Past Masters: Sarah Dunant

Passion by Jude Morgan – review

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak – review

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