Feature

Charlotte Mendelson's 6 favorite fiction books with historical themes

The British novelist recommends works by James Baldwin, Anna Burns, and more

British novelist and essayist Charlotte Mendelson is the author of Almost English, When We Were Bad, and Rhapsody in Green. Her latest novel, The Exhibitionist, was longlisted for the U.K.'s Women's Prize for Fiction.

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1990–2012)

A panoramic unpacking of the intimate lives of three generations of one privileged family, Howard's intricate, painful, expansive sequence of five novels is usually, stupidly, dismissed as "domestic," a "historical saga" about the English middle class in the 1930s through '50s. Fools: It's a masterpiece. If the author were male, we'd all take it seriously. Buy it here.

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (1956)

James Baldwin, a gay Black man, knew Otherness; his writing about race is electrifying, but this short, harrowing novel about an American man's affair with an Italian waiter in Paris is unparalleled for its understanding of fear, poverty, passion, and the end of love. Buy it here.

Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)

Anna Burns won the Man Booker Prize for this dazzlingly bold, utterly true study of domestic terrorism, oppression, gossip, religion, sexuality, and young womanhood, based on but not confined to the Troubles. I, always a late adopter, have only just discovered why. Buy it here.

Villette by Charlotte Brontë (1853)

I am an evangelist for this devastating masterpiece. Jane Eyre is the milksop sibling to Villette's Lucy Snowe, the introvert's introvert: brainy, passionate, and dark. It's a love story, a hate story, an adventure, and the most extraordinary portrait of an inner life. The ending will kill you. Buy it here.

Family Sayings by Natalia Ginzburg (1963)

The most insightful study of a traumatized family I know, this semi-autobiographical story about an Italian family from the rise of fascism through the aftermath of World War II is funny, loving, disconcertingly glamorous. Afterward, read about what happened to Natalia Ginzburg herself; your heart will break. Buy it here.

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

The dryly brilliant Hazzard is almost wholly ignored now, but her idiosyncratic novels about longing, loss, war, and recovery are stunning. This National Book Critics Circle Award winner, about two orphaned Australian sisters starting over in England in the 1950s, is my heartbreaking favorite. Buy it here.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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