The Anglophile’s guide to historical fiction
There is nothing that brings me such unbridled joy as a richly written, atmospheric historical fiction novel. I have never been one to wish for times past, because I am a modern lady who enjoys modern amenities such as public works systems, vaccinations and air conditioning units.
However, I certainly do take delight in visiting other times and places, whether they be drab or fab. Historical fiction is an all-encompassing genre that features a variety of cultures and time periods and locations — to narrow the scope, I’ve come up with a pair of titles that are linked by their country, some general themes, and are best when paired with a cup of tea.
“The Fair Fight” by Anna Freeman
This book was all the rage several years ago on Booktube, so mostly I was afraid to pick it up for fear it would be a similar situation as to “Burial Rites” by Hannah Kent (a book that is often lauded but, for the record, one which I firmly detest). Female pugilists in late 1700’s England — a story about overcoming your situation, gaining independence and the lasting power of female friendship? Surely the book itself is good in theory, but executed poorly, right? It really couldn’t be as phenomenal as it sounds, right? Wrong.
The story is gripping and surprisingly fast-paced considering the setting, and the characters are so compelling I became emotionally attached in an instant. “The Fair Fight” mainly follows two strikingly different female characters: Ruth, a scrappy, smart-mouthed individual who was born in the brothel her mother now runs, who isn’t quite pretty enough to be considered useful like her much more beautiful older sister; and Charlotte, who is born to immense wealth and privilege, but whose physical appearance is ravaged by smallpox, making her marriage and social prospects nonexistent.
The two come from polar opposite backgrounds, but their worth as women transcends their aesthetic beauty and their ability to serve other people. Ruth’s fierceness and her indefatigable resolve to forge her own destiny and Charlotte’s cleverness and her ability to never be quite as she seems makes them both remarkable additions to the genre, and ones worth rooting for. I literally cheered once I reached the ending. To use a terrible pun, this one is a real knockout.
“As Meat Loves Salt” by Maria McCann
This is the book that ended my Great Reading Slump of ’17. I have always considered myself to be a voracious reader, but last year, prior to this magnificent tome, I was relegated to anxiously picking through random books only to give up on them minutes later. It was frustrating, to say the least. Recommended to me by a wonderful friend whose reading taste is always impeccable, I knew “As Meat Loves Salt” would be a standout read, but I underestimated just how truly excellent it would be.
Set during the English Revolution, this novel is, to put it bluntly, a total assault on the senses. Maria McCann’s narrative style is visceral and immersive, even grotesque in its realistic descriptions of everyday life in the 1600’s. In spite of (or perhaps because of that), her prose is gorgeous. She has created a main character, Jacob, who for all intents and purposes is a despicable, beastly young man whose only goal in life is to better his situation without ever considering the humanity of others.
It should be easy to hate him, though the author presents him in such a way that you will find yourself sympathizing with him, even when he is vulgar or terrifying. This complicated relationship between reader and protagonist leads to moments of such bittersweet delight when Jacob is inexplicably kind, or intense sorrow when he is heart-broken over his impulsive actions. I found myself wishing for a better life for him, even though he might not deserve it. Maria McCann is a genius author — “As Meat Loves Salt” has been described as her literary masterpiece, and I am inclined to agree.
— Kimberly Lopez is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.