It feels like historical fiction is such a flabby term that's better for booksellers than readers. Really all novels are historical because even ones set in the future are an author imaginatively writing about the world as they've seen and know it. But mostly it feels like historical fiction means books set in the distant past and I especially like ones about periods of time I don't know much about. How would you define historical fiction? And what's the best historical novel you've read this year?

Here are my picks of eight great historical novels from 2017. There's fiction about suffragettes, a female viceroy of Sicily, a WWII naval shipyard worker, the fate of a much-desired man, a dysfunctional ancient Greek family, Nazis in the Ukraine, an axe murder and a president’s grief. Click on the titles to see my full posts about them or you can also watch me discuss these in this video (where a fox makes a surprise appearance): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAXFfOMC-X4&t=146s

The Night Brother by Rosie Garland

The Revolution of the Moon by Andrea Camilleri (translated by Stephen Sartarelli)

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

House of Names by Colm Toibin

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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Like many people I was always aware of the infamous rhyme about Lizzie Borden (giving her mother forty whacks), but knew absolutely nothing else about her or the brutal murder case. So it was fascinating naively plunging into Sarah Schmidt's dramatic fictional version of this twisted family tale. “See What I Have Done” begins right in the middle of that blood-soaked day on August 4, 1892 where Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby are found dead in their home having been hacked repeatedly with an axe. The story revolves between the perspectives of Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the household maid Bridget and a young man named Benjamin. Their accounts surrounding the days before and after the horrific murder gradually piece together to form a complex puzzle. The tension builds as we come to understand this strained household environment and broken family. This was such a wonderfully atmospheric story that teases the senses and drew me into this chilling murderous situation. 

It’s extraordinary the way details about the scent of rotting pears or mutton soup are described to add to the sinister air of the story. The Borden household came to feel fully realized in my imagination as I not only became very familiar with how the property looked, felt and smelled, but also understood the difficult dynamic between everyone who lived there in the days running up to the murder. Lizzie is an combative young woman often desperate for attention and affection. Her sister Emma grew tired of attending to her and was filled with regret about opportunities she’s missed out on because of her loyalty to her sister. She tries to make a new life for herself by leaving but this has caused Lizzie to grow even more unstable. Her domineering father and uptight mother-in-law take increasingly brutal measures to assert their authority, but only succeed in antagonizing Lizzie and Irish servant Bridget. This is a household situation that builds to an explosion.

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I was engaged in this story not just because of the tense mystery about who committed the murders, but also the emotionally touching way Schmidt wrote about the complicated arrangement of the Border house. It’s a place so saturated with frustration and tragic miscommunication that each character is left feeling very isolated. Equally, Benjamin’s family situation provides an interesting parallel where neglect leads to a tragically desperate situation. Before the crime ever occurs there’s a sense of untenable loss concerning the girls’ deceased mother and feelings which have never been resolved. The story describes not only the grizzly consequences of a home that is severely emotionally broken but gets at the tenderness of “That grief inside the heart” of the characters. In many ways, this makes “See What I Have Done” a haunting and memorable novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Schmidt
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