Reading Back in Time: 8 Captivating Historical Novels

The Weight of Ink by Rachel KadishLovers of immersive historical fiction need look no further than Rachel Kadish's gloriously complex new novel, The Weight of Ink. Two historians who find letters written 300 years ago in plague-ridden London by a blind rabbi slowly realize that they have a more electrifying discovery on their hands: the rabbi's scribe was a woman. As the historians' investigation accelerates, Kadish plunges the reader into the smoggy, socially circumscribed world of Ester Velasquez in 17th-century London. Ester has survived much tragedy in her young life and now quietly but steadfastly refuses to be squashed further.

Our editorial team picked The Weight of Ink not only as a best book of the month when it first came out, but as one of the best books of the year so far, a designation awarded to only 20 titles out of thousands.

But if you simply must read more than one historical novel this year (after The Weight of Ink, which you really should not miss), Kadish has a number of suggestions for you. We asked for a handful of recommendations, but she went above and beyond, demonstrating her boundless passion for historical literature.

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Beloved by Toni Morrison - I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Morrison’s harrowing, redemptive novel about slavery and its aftermath. Part historical novel, part ghost story, this book is haunting in the truest possible way: the past grips us by the throat until we acknowledge it and decide what to do about it.
 

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Possession by A.S. Byatt - The discovery of a letter in the pages of a Victorian poet’s book sends contemporary scholars on a chase that upends what they thought they knew about literature and love. I was riveted by everything about this book—the clues found in poems, the competing narratives, the way the reader becomes a detective trying to unearth the secrets of a love lost to history.
 

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Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal - Lowenthal shines a long-overdue spotlight on a shameful bit of history: the U.S. government’s detention, during WW I, of thousands of American women for the "crimes" of promiscuity and contracting venereal disease. Frieda Mintz is an unforgettable heroine: a bold, sensual 17-year-old whose predicament feels alarmingly contemporary.
 

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Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks - Brooks is a genius at bringing a world and its people to life. This tale of a small village’s response to England’s horrific plague year is based on events that took place over 350 years ago, yet the choices these characters face in extreme circumstances feel timeless.
 

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The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje - In an Italian villa in WWII, a nurse cares for a badly burnt, nameless man; a sapper and a thief struggle to make sense of the world; and history and human passions weave together in some of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever read.
 

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The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck - As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I’d never considered the lives of ordinary Germans in the aftermath of WWII. Shattuck’s beautifully human portraits make me care deeply for her characters as they struggle to reconcile memory and shame with the need to move forward.
 

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Mr. Mani by A. B. Yehoshua - Play the record of history backward and the strangest patterns emerge. Yehoshua’s mind-bending structure takes us from the Israeli desert in the 1980s back (and back, and back) in time, to British-Mandate Palestine and Crete and Athens, in an attempt to get at the roots of one family’s history. The unusual structure of this novel requires some work, but the effect is unforgettable.
 

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My Notorious Life by Kate Manning - As midwife Axie Muldoon weaves and dodges her way through a world hostile to women, nineteenth century New York City comes to gritty life…and the twenty-first century gains a heroine with style and a fiery devotion to doing right by the women who seek her help.
 

Rachel Kadish

 

Rachel KadishRachel Kadish is the award-winning author of the novels From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story, as well as the novella I Was Here. Her work has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times, Ploughshares, and Tin House, and has been anthologized in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and elsewhere. She lives outside Boston and teaches in Lesley University's MFA Program in Creative Writing. (Photo by Kevin Day Photography)

 

 


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Comments (2)

I've added 3 books from this article to my Wish List (already had the Weight of Ink on my list). Similar to Mr Mani, my favorite book ever is The Source by James Michener. Worth he time to read it.

Posted by: Jan | Thursday June 29, 2017 at 12:01 PM

I had already read several of the recommendations, but I just started The Weight of Ink. Wow! This book is one of the best books I have read all year. The author totally immerses the reader in the world(s) about which she is writing. Truly amazing. My only complaint is that, because it is so large, it is difficult to read in bed! A good candidate for Kindle.

Posted by: Mary Noel | Thursday June 29, 2017 at 4:44 PM

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