By my lights, a holiday column should be over-the-top generous. So here are a dozen gifts — historical novels for a wide variety of tastes, in a wide variety of styles, from a wide variety of places. Something, I hope, for everyone.
Let’s start with two impressive debuts. Melody Razak’s MOTH (Harper, 368 pp., $26.99) portrays the changing fortunes of a well-intentioned Brahmin family as India and Pakistan are carved from the British Raj, an experience of Partition that begins with gentle comedy, then gradually descends into distinctly ungentle tragedy, particularly for the family’s teenage daughter.
On the other side of the world, the young woman at the center of Joanna Quinn’s THE WHALEBONE THEATRE (Knopf, 576 pp., $29) is one of those wryly sketched misfits frequently encountered in English country-house fiction. First met as a child in 1919, then seen as a teenager using the remains of a beached whale as a makeshift amateur playhouse, she grows up to further her flair for the dramatic as an Allied spy in World War II France.
Just as a crumbling Dorset mansion adds to the atmosphere of Quinn’s bustling novel, the decrepit rural estate called Kilcolgan House is a fit setting for the political complexities of civil-war-era Ireland in W.C. Ryan’s THE WINTER GUEST (Arcade CrimeWise, 336 pp., $26.99). An aristocratic Protestant woman allied to the movement for independence has been killed at the gates of the property. Was she an inadvertent victim of the I.R.A. or is someone else to blame? The clandestine I.R.A. agent sent from Dublin to investigate is uniquely qualified: He was, after all, once her fiancé.
The death that needs explaining in Lauren Belfer’s ASHTON HALL (Ballantine, 397 pp., $28) lies hundreds of years in the past. An American scholar and her 9-year-old son are the summer guests of an elderly friend whose apartment occupies one wing of a Cambridgeshire manor that’s been turned into a museum. But when the boy goes exploring, he finds more than he bargained for — the skeleton of a woman who seems to have been walled into a tiny room way back in the Elizabethan era. As they try to learn more about her, the Americans will, of course, also discover more about themselves.
Admirers of Robert J. Lloyd’s creepy 17th-century thriller “The Bloodless Boy” will already be familiar with his central character, an invented acolyte to the real scientist and architect Robert Hooke. Both are back in THE POISON MACHINE (Melville House, 454 pp., $29.99), a deliciously preposterous adventure that leaps between Paris and London as they try to thwart a plot to kill Charles II’s Roman Catholic queen at a gathering of her followers.
In his darkly suspenseful new novel, THE WINTERING PLACE (Norton, 279 pp., $27.95), Kevin McCarthy reconnects with the immigrant Irish brothers he left on the American frontier in “Wolves of Eden.” On the run from the Army and from a long list of crimes (at least a few of which they swear they haven’t committed), these two somehow survive a rough season in a cave in the snowbound wilderness, abetted by a woman they’ve rescued along the way. Will a change of seasons bring a rise in their fortunes, or will it continue their downward spiral?
I couldn’t help imagining what a film Wes Anderson might make of Suzette Mayr’s THE SLEEPING CAR PORTER (Coach House, 216 pp., paperback, $17.95). The novel’s main character is a gay Black porter riding the rails in 1920s Canada, coping with a horde of difficult long-haul passengers, including a child who appears to have permanently attached herself to his leg. Terrified that a breach of one of the railway’s insanely restrictive rules will get him fired before he can save enough money for dental school, he amuses himself — and keeps awake on grueling shifts — by imagining the medical horrors that lie behind the smiles (or grimaces) of his clientele.
“Black Panther” may have introduced West Africa’s female fighters to a wide movie audience, but Vanessa Riley enhances its literary tradition in her latest novel, SISTER MOTHER WARRIOR (Morrow, 470 pp., $27.99). Intent on reminding readers of the part women played in the Haitian revolution, she resurrects two historical figures: Adbaraya Toya, an enslaved former military commander from Dahomey who is sold from plantation to plantation, and Marie-Claire Bonheur, a free woman of color who is the widow of a French cartwright. Each has a decidedly different connection to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of the leaders of the rebellion, and each has a decidedly different approach to the struggle for independence.
Vietnam has its own tradition of women warriors, one that dates back 2,000 years. Phong Nguyen uses BRONZE DRUM (Grand Central, 400 pp., paperback, $17.99) to give flesh to some of the stories he first heard from his father, mythic tales of two royal sisters from the Au Lac region of ancient Vietnam who led an army that triumphed over their Han Chinese overlords. Although the Trung sisters’ reign was brief, it has remained a strong part of the region’s cultural heritage. Even today, they’re national heroines.
In EVERYTHING THE LIGHT TOUCHES (HarperVia, 491 pp., $27.99), Janice Pariat ricochets between different narratives as she explores our evolving relationship to the natural world. What connects Linnaeus’s 18th-century Lapland expedition to the botanical obsession of an English spinster supposedly husband-hunting in colonial India? Or, for that matter, Goethe’s theorizing about plants, inspired by his travels in Italy? Could the answer lie in the experiences of a young Indian woman who flees modern-day Delhi, taking refuge among the villagers of mountainous Assam?
Jess Kidd uses two alternating narratives in THE NIGHT SHIP (Atria, 389 pp., $28), shrewdly illuminating the loneliness and violence that make two children kindred spirits, even though they live centuries apart. In 1629, a real-life shipwreck stranded the passengers and crew of a Dutch merchant vessel on an uninhabited island off the coast of Western Australia. Kidd puts a feisty young girl aboard, on her way to visit her father in the East Indies, and ratchets up the tension by intersecting her increasingly barbarous story with that of an orphan sent to live with his fisherman grandfather on the very same island more than 300 years later. A ghost girl is said to haunt the place, but the danger he faces will come from a villain who is all too real.
The tiny Irish island now known as Skellig Michael is as isolated and forbidding as they come. Which makes it the perfect spot for a seventh-century priest and two humble followers to establish a monastic retreat, a bleak physical and spiritual landscape that Emma Donoghue brilliantly sketches in HAVEN (Little, Brown, 257 pp., $28). Here it seems that every hard-won victory will be followed by an equally challenging defeat and, as time passes, the priest’s religious zeal will acquire a frighteningly authoritarian cast. Donoghue serves up the kind of mesmerizing but chilling character study that makes you glad you’re encountering it at a distance — safe in the pages of a book.
The post A Cornucopia of Stories From the Past, Satisfying All Appetites appeared first on New York Times.