Nick Ren­ni­son se­lects this year’s best his­tor­i­cal fic­tion

BBC History Magazine - - Books - Nick Ren­ni­son is the au­thor of Carver’s Truth (Corvus)

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

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