Nick Rennison selects this year’s best historical fiction
One of 2018’s most impressive historical novels was Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. In the winter of 1809, John Lacroix returns from the Peninsular War to his home in Somerset, damaged in body and spirit. Recovered physically but not psychologically, he flees to the Scottish islands to escape his demons, but he is pursued there by two dangerous men from his past.
The latest novel by the prize-winning author of Pure successfully combines elements of an old-fashioned adventure story with a moving study of a man in search of personal redemption. In Mrs Whistler, Matthew Plampin brings the Victorian art world vividly to life, through a memorable portrait of the flamboyant American painter James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), as seen through the eyes of Maud Franklin, his muse, mistress and would-be fellow artist. As Whistler feuds with philistines who fail to appreciate his work, and defies lawsuits, potential bankruptcy and the betrayals of supposed friends, Maud struggles to escape his shadow and assert her own identity, both personal and artistic.
My third choice is Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley. Set in a 1930s Suffolk village still deeply affected by the losses of the First World War, this subtle, intelligent novel tells the story of troubled teenager Edie Mather, eager for opportunities to enrich her life. A charismatic visitor from London appears to offer them but she is not all she seems. In her brilliant reconstruction of a seemingly lost past, Harrison finds echoes of dilemmas and anxieties that continue to haunt contemporary England.
A compelling debut novel of the year was Paul Howarth’s Only Killers and Thieves, an Australian ‘western’ set in Queensland in the 1880s. After the murder of his parents on their remote farmstead, teenager Billy McBride joins an expedition into the bush to punish the nomadic band of aboriginal people assumed to be responsible for their deaths. The further his party advances into unexplored territory, however, the more Billy suspects that he is not being told the truth about the killings. Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind is an unexpected but triumphant foray into historical fiction by a writer whose previous works all have contemporary settings. A small village in medieval Somerset is disturbed by the unexplained death of the richest man in the tight-knit community. Told in the voice of the village priest, it is both an unconventional murder mystery and an unforgettable re-creation of 15th-century rural life.
Maud Franklin, the muse and mistress of artist James McNeill Whistler. Her story has been fictionalised by Matthew Plampin