In previous posts, I’ve introduced the All the Best Books Compilation, and highlighted the top crime and thriller novels that it identified for 2014. Let’s continue coverage by looking at which books were most often mentioned as a best book of the year in the historical fiction category. I’ll count down the top nine, those that were mentioned more than 15 times each.
Download the full ABBC2014
In the ninth position are two books that were named a best-of-the-year by 16 different sources, and share an exploration of America in the late twentieth century. The first is We Are Not Ourselves, the debut novel of Matthew Thomas. It’s a family saga following Eileen Tumulty, a tough daughter of Irish immigrants who longs for better things, her more genteel scientist husband, Ed Leary, and their son, Connell, through the years from the end of WWII to recent times. The novel follows the changing fortunes of the American Dream through these years, as embodied by the Leary family.
Also with 16 mentions is the veteran Jane Smiley’s Some Luck. Smiley returns to the Iowa of her classic novel A Thousand Acres (1991), beginning a trilogy that will follow the Langdon family through the twentieth century. This opening book takes readers from 1920 to 1953, with each year getting its own chapter. Over its course, the family weathers the Great Depression, keeps the farm going through droughts, and expands, sending some members into the broader America that would go through WWII and the Communist witch hunts. The format requires Smiley to tell a big story through sketches and hints, but it’s as if a series of pencil drawings were stacked on top of each other to reveal something bigger: a story of rich layers and details.
In the seventh spot, with 17 mentions, is the latest from the often polarizing British novelist Martin Amis. In The Zone of Interest, he explores a WWII concentration camp—which we can obliquely identify as Auschwitz—through three characters: Paul Doll, the camp’s boorish commandant; Golo Thomsen, who from his middle-manager position has fallen for Doll’s wife Hannah; and Szmul, a Jewish inmate who is responsible for disposing of the bodies of those gassed in the camp’s chambers. Amis blends diverse elements—an off-kilter romance, a comic satire of the horrors created by camp’s banal bureaucracy, and the hard business of what people can become in times of war—ultimately creating something more than the sum of the parts.
In sixth, with 19 mentions, is Colm Toíbín’s latest, Nora Webster. As the novel opens, the title character is newly widowed, and in the rural Ireland of 1969, that means the likelihood of a bleak future for Nora and her four children. Instead of giving in, however, Nora, with quiet determination, faces her grief and through small triumphs and perseverance comes into her own. She protects her children as best she can from the invasions and snobberies of County Wexford, dyes her hair for the first time, learns to enjoy music, even manages some travel and home renovations. There are no major events to be had here, just the realistic details of a life lived well through dignity.
The fourth spot is shared by two books with 26 mentions each. One is the Booker Prize winner, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It’s the story of an Australian doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who is trying to protect the men working as slave labor on WWII’s Burma-Siam Railroad. From this central point, the narrative ranges backwards and forward through Evans’ life, and also detours to take in the perspective of others, not only his fellow captives but also some of the men that work as guards in their camp under the horrific Colonel Kota. It’s a study of the effects of war over entire lives, and a look at how an unheroic man haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s wife gets through it all.
The other book tied for fourth is A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James. Most descriptions of this book focus on one of its better known subject matters, the attempted assassination of reggae giant Bob Marley in 1976. But that’s just one touchpoint in a much larger canvas, one which explores how the balance of power between rival Jamaican gangs is disrupted and how the resulting imbalance creates changes in the drug trade, in immigration, and in Jamaican politics. Readers take this in from the perspectives of over 70 different characters, and in the language of their musical Jamaican patois. This is definitely one for those who like big, challenging tales, but it has deservedly received critical love because of its original subject matter and style.
The third most mentioned work of historical fiction is Lily King’s Euphoria. The book is based on, but doesn’t exactly follow, the lives of Margaret Mead (although the book changes her name) and her second and third husbands. As the story opens, Nell Stone is already a recognized anthropologist, leaving her husband Fen jealous and competitive. They leave behind one violent New Guinea tribe to try to improve their declining health and the stress on their marriage, but are convinced by an encounter with another anthropologist, the depressed Arthur Bankston, to stay in New Guinea and try studying a different tribe. The relationships between the trio are interwoven with the nature of the tribes they study and by each anthropologist’s approach to the discipline. One reviewer described it, aptly I think, as Heart of Darkness with a feminist twist.
The second best historical fiction of 2014, as measured by the ABBC, is The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters. Set in post-WWI London, it’s the story of an impoverished upper crust widow and her daughter, forced to take in paying lodgers to avoid losing their large villa. A dark, brooding tone, a slew of complicated emotions like shame, guilt, and secret love, and the author’s gift for nuance and detail are among the many factors that reviewers cite in their praises of Waters’ latest.
Atop the list of historical fiction (and second highest among all fiction for 2014), with a whopping 44 best-book-of-the-year mentions, is Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr’s protagonists, a blind French girl, and a gifted young German technologist, have a love for books, for the natural world, for the study of science, but their intuitive and eager skills are caught up in the stronger currents of World War II. Marie-Laure flees Paris with her father and a precious gem from the National Museum of Natural History where he worked, only to land at St. Malo in the path of the American landings on the continent. In the other main story line, Werner’s precocious electronics skills make him a target of exploitation at an elite school for Nazi boys. This one has it all: characters, plot, style, and setting.
In all, 139 different works of historical fiction were mentioned as a best book of the year, so look through the ABBC spreadsheet to find the titles that fit you best as a reader. Without description, here are the next twelve titles in this long list of great books:
The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, by Francine Prose
Song of the Shank, by Jeffery Renard Allen
An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, by Genevieve Valentine
The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami
The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman
Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue
Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique
Lucky Us, by Amy Bloom
The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
Rainey Royal, by Dylan Landis