If you’re reading this, you and I are probably the last two people in Canada who aren’t in Europe right now. Or at least that’s how Instagram makes it feel. (And hey, thanks to the wonders of the internet, maybe you are in fact reading this article from your sun lounger in Mykonos! Staycationers and jetsetters are all equally welcome here.)
Either way, there’s no better cure for some social media-induced FOMO than losing yourself in a good book, especially when you up the escapist ante by transporting yourself to some other time in the past. (And just think of the frustration of cancelled flights, lost baggage and over-crowded tourist attractions you’re avoiding.)
That’s why we’ve rounded up the summer’s best new historical fiction – with an oldie-but-a-goodie or three sprinkled in there too. Happy reading!
Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter
By Lizzie Pook (Simon & Schuster, June)
Pearls – luminous, lustrous – have long been objects of desire. (A string of them was once worth more than a new car!) But the cost to procure these gems of the ocean floor has often been measured in human lives – a fact familiar to Eliza Brightwell, the heroine of this fascinating book set in Western Australia’s late 19th-century pearl rush. Her father, an inveterate dreamer, is a pearler whose boat returns without him one morning. Everyone else seems content to accept that he simply fell overboard but Eliza – armed with cryptic clues he left her – believes there’s something much more sinister afoot, a hunch that takes her deep into the underbelly of an industry whose ugliness – not least in the exploitation of workers, many of colour, and the displacement of Indigenous people – belies the beautiful objects it produces.
A Lady’s Guide To Fortune-Hunting
By Sophie Irwin (Penguin Canada, July)
If you were personally offended by the much-panned new Netflix adaptation of Persuasion, may I suggest this delightful read as a balm? Full of Austen-esque wit and just enough sizzle, this is the tale of a Regency woman who, thanks to circumstances beyond her control, is driven into securing a rich husband – not for her own ambition, but to ensure her younger siblings are provided for. The only problem? A certain dashing Lord Radcliffe who can see right through her schemes and machinations.
The Many Daughters of Afong Moy
By Jamie Ford (Atria Books, August)
Do our genes carry memories? That’s the provocative question at the heart of this lyrical novel, whose protagonist is a poet laureate who pours her mental health struggles into her art. One day, she undergoes an experimental treatment aimed at tackling “inherited trauma,” or the idea that what happened to your ancestors is, quite literally, in your own bones too. In doing this, she suddenly has access to countless women in her family tree: A child who lived through plague in San Francisco, a nurse who cared for China’s famous Flying Tigers air squadron, and Afong Moy, believed to be the first Chinese woman to come to the U.S. This is an inventive, sensitive take on the usual multi-generational family saga.
By Emma Donoghue (HarperCollins Canada, August)
Three monks in a boat: It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but in the hands of Emma Donoghue – one of our most adept spinners of historical tales – this is part-fable, part-thriller. It is 7th-century Ireland, and a scholar priest has (or so he believes) heard from God, the directive being that he must remove himself from the evils of the world and build a monastery where true faith can flourish. With him are two other religious brothers, and together they must survive on the barren, unforgiving island they wash up on. It ends about as well as you’d expect a story of blinkered zeal and faith perverted in the name of religion would, but along the way, it’s a moving tale with a pervading sense of unease that grips you till the last page.
A Dreadful Splendour
By B.R. Myers (HarperCollins Canada, August)
There’s nothing the Victorians loved more than ghosts – a historical fact that this romp of a read mines to page-turning effect. Genevieve Timmons is, by her own admission, a fraud – but this doesn’t stop her from peddling her seances to any well-heeled Londoner who’ll part with coin in exchange for one last word with a departed loved one. (A girl’s gotta eat, after all.) This leads her to Somerset Park – it was that or jail – where she’s been hired by a (supposedly) brokenhearted aristocrat to summon the spirit of Lady Audra, his bride who died on the eve of their wedding night under mysterious circumstances. (Like, how did she end up on the beach when her bedroom door was locked from the inside?!) Part murder-mystery, part romance and entirely great fun, this one’s spookily good.
The Marriage Portrait
By Maggie O’Farrell (Knopf Canada, September)
When Lucrezia’s new husband takes her to an isolated hunting lodge, leaving the rest of the court behind, she is certain of one thing: He is planning to kill her. This is despite, of course, that she is his new bride, a third daughter of the Grand Duke of Florence, plucked out of the nursery unexpectedly when her older sister dies just before the contracted marriage (and alliance between two great houses of Renaissance Italy) could take place. As finely detailed as the titular painting, this beguiling tale of power, politics and one woman’s fight for agency is yet another masterpiece by the author of Hamnet.
Three oldies that you should definitely read (if you haven’t already)
By Min Jin Lee (Grand Central Publishing)
Recently turned into an excellent Apple+ series, this sweeping saga about four generations of a Korean family is the kind of meaty, tear-jerking read you can really sink your teeth into over a long summer weekend.
The God of Small Things
By Arundhati Roy (Random House)
Enchanting, unsettling, utterly absorbing: There’s a reason this tale of fraternal twins in 1960s India (a description which does the magic of this book no justice!) was a critical smash when it was first released, and has appeared on dozen of “best” lists since then. Follow with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy’s follow-up that’s entirely worth the 20 years we waited for it.
By Toni Morrison (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)
Somehow even more relevant than when it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, this classic is a masterful indictment on the malevolent, unresolved legacy of slavery in America, told through the story of a formerly enslaved woman name Sethe, fighting to build a life even as her traumatic past (quite literally, possibly) continues to haunt her.
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