The best women's historical fiction

The Books I Picked & Why

The Siege

By Helen Dunmore

Book cover of The Siege

Why this book?

This novel about the siege of Leningrad taught me how it is possible to make readers care deeply about huge historical events, by keeping a close focus on one family, and one young woman in particular. This is Helen Dunmore's masterpiece: in storytelling terms, in characterisation, and in placing these people against the ghastly backdrop of Leningrad in 1941, when Hitler's troops surrounded it and tried to starve the city into surrender. The book is based on meticulous research, but the facts are so deeply embedded that they become part of the wallpaper, leaving the reader to powerfully experience the day-to-day horrors through the eyes and ears of the central character. 

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Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague

By Geraldine Brooks

Book cover of Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague

Why this book?

When I first read this book, we hadn't lived through a plague ourselves, and I'm sure it would be even more pertinent for new readers today. I loved this book for what I learned about the history of the bubonic plague, and that my learning was so effortless, as I was completely captured by the book's heroine and the true story of the village of Eyam in Derybyshire. Having seen the fake news and false cures which have emerged during COVID 19, it is even easier than ever to believe the reliance on quack cures and religion, and the accusations of witchcraft that surrounded mortal illness in the 17th Century. As the villagers seal off the village to prevent the spread of the disease we see humanity at its worst and at its best. 

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By Toni Morrison

Book cover of Beloved

Why this book?

This is a book which blew the top of my head off. I can remember finishing it on a train and thinking, 'Well there's no point in me ever writing another word. I'll never make anything as perfect as this.' This is the most agonisingly vivid book ever written about enslavement. It wriggles into your brain and heart and stays with you forever. The writing is astonishing. The soaring imagination and pinpoint accuracy are breathtaking. Of course, it's normally classified as 'literary fiction', but it's about history, it's by a woman and it's about women, so I think it counts in this list. In 1988, Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved and she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. For once the judges got it absolutely right.

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All Among the Barley

By Melissa Harrison

Book cover of All Among the Barley

Why this book?

Is this historical fiction or is it sublime nature writing?  Answer: it's both. Melissa Harrison completely immersed me into the rural Sussex world of Edie in 1933, a world unchanged for centuries. It is described in achingly beautiful, hypnotic, poetic language: the kind of prose I'd hoped I would write when I turned from poetry to fiction, but which has so far escaped me. I was utterly captivated by the multi-textured world she creates, and the shock of the ending, and the darkness which lies beneath. I loved the way she trusted the reader to understand what was going on, without spelling it out. Superbly controlled and crafted. I can only stand back and applaud.

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Mr. Wroe's Virgins

By Jane Rogers

Book cover of Mr. Wroe's Virgins

Why this book?

I remember Jane Rogers talking about the book when it was first published and made into a TV series in the 1990s. She said she wrote about the past because it was a way of shining a forensic light onto the issues which surround us today. In this case, the subject was religion - hard to write about in the modern world without treading on toes or being accused of cultural appropriation. But the past belongs to us all. In this way, I can write in The Prisoner's Wife about what happens when Fascism is allowed to flourish, and in my next book, Acts of Love and War about the refugee crisis caused by war. What I particularly admired about Mr. Wroe's Virgins was the way that each section was told from a different character's point of view, examining the complexity of history itself, as well as telling a rollicking good story. 

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