My new book, SAS Band of Brothers is all about bringing history alive. Making a decades-old conflict like WWII feel accessible and real. In a similar vein I tend to read gripping, visceral narrative history that can and does inspire.
So, don’t be put off by the thick bulk of Erik Larsen’s The Splendid and The Vile – A saga of Churchill, family and defiance during the Blitz. Published in some 20 countries, Larsen manages to conjure up a cast of characters and a sense of time and place that is gripping, utterly convincing and makes for compelling reading. He renders these towering figures from the earliest and most perilous months of the war quintessentially human: we see Winston Churchill openly in tears, as he strolls through the blasted streets of London’s East End, and in doing so endearing himself to Londoners no end.
But I also rate historic fiction highly. Robert Harris’ iconic cover for his newest book, V2, depicts powerfully the sheer size and ferocious potency of Hitler’s much-vaunted Vergeltungswaffen – Vengeance Weapons – whose fear-factor and sheer technological superiority almost tipped the scales in the war, and in the favour of Nazi Germany. Or, at the very least, threatened to give Hitler enough leverage to sue for peace. As the massive rockets’ fiery trails seared an arc from freezing, snowbound Dutch woodlands towards Britain, flying at hitherto impossible supersonic speeds, a desperate plot to stop them is launched against all odds …
Both books relate to pivotal moments in history; authentic characters; gripping plots. The perfect way to bring history alive.
There has been a wealth of brilliant non-fiction out in paperback this year. Near the top of my list is Tim Mohr’s brilliant book Burning Down the Haus, a history of punk in East Germany, and how it helped to undermine the Communist regime. It’s an unexpected story, a bit rough around the edges, but a true page-turner.
At the other end of the academic spectrum is Toby Green’s scholarly chronicle of West Africa, A Fistful of Shells. Unlike other books in this genre, this one shows how events looked from a distinctly African point of view. It is a serious, exhaustively researched book that comprehensively skewers the myth that ‘Africa has no history’.
Still on the colonial theme, William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy recounts the relentless and quite brutal rise of the East India Company. It is a masterpiece of both scholarship and storytelling.
There have been some excellent biographies this year. Rebecca Gowers has done some brilliant research to piece together the life of one of the 19th century’s most fascinating black sheep in The Scoundrel Harry Larkyns. But my biography of the year, also now out in paperback, is Oliver Soden’s book on the composer Michael Tippett. It is so much more than a book about classical music: it’s also about war, politics, class, gay rights, the Cold War, and many of the pivotal moments of the 20th century.
I thoroughly enjoyed Jack Fairweather’s The Volunteer, now out in paperback after winning the Costa Book of the Year in its year of publication, 2019. It tells the remarkable story of Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish resistance, who got himself voluntarily arrested by the Gestapo in September 1940 in order to gain first-hand intelligence from inside Auschwitz. After surviving for two-and-a-half years – and having smuggled out harrowing reports – Pilecki led a successful escape from the Nazis’ most notorious extermination camp. This alone would render him worthy of a biographical study, but Pilecki’s story reveals a darker strand to what we already know about the holocaust, exposing serious shortcomings in the responses of the British and American governments. Fairweather has combed though a mass of primary sources to produce a shockingly brutal tale that sheds new light on the holocaust. The Volunteer is both a fitting memorial to a Polish hero and a shaming indictment of the western allies’ failure to act.
Another little-known chapter of history is revealed in Helen Fry’s ground-breaking book, MI9 which tells the story of Military Intelligence 9, one of the least known agencies of World War Two. Its principal role was to help British POWs escape from enemy-occupied territory – a wartime imperative given that it took three months to train a fighter pilot. Britain could ill afford to let skilled airmen languish behind bars: it needed them back in the air. But how to get them home? This was the role of MI9, which established resistance networks and ‘safe’ escape routes across Europe. Meticulously researched, MI9 is a welcome salute to those who broke out of their POW camps in order that they might be returned to the battlefront.
I am an admirer of the novels of Tracy Chevalier, from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Dutch Republic in the Girl with the Pearl Earring to Mary Anning’s discovery of fossils in Remarkable Creatures. A Single Thread did not disappoint.
This novel proves to be compelling as it unwraps the difficulties for many women faced with lack of employment and loss of their men-folk in the decade after the First World War. Violet, bereaved and suffering a dominant mother, sees no hope of achieving either a fulfilling future or a husband. And yet all hope is not lost and Violet, with surprising resilience, escapes the restrictions on her life in a most unexpected direction.
The stitching of new kneelers for the Cathedral by the skilled (and some less than skilled) women of Winchester becomes the backdrop for this tale of loss and heartbreak, of love and redemption. It is told with vivid detail that draws the reader into the world of the embroiderers, offering an appealing glimpse of the characters of these women who are ambitious to leave their mark on the history of Winchester in the only way open to them. And if embroidery were not enough, the lure of bell ringing also becomes part of Violet’s new life.
I read this book during lockdown. Of all the books I have read this year, it gave me hope, and immense pleasure. The characters stayed with me long after the final page.
It has had mixed reviews, but I loved Rose Tremain’s new novel, Islands of Mercy, in particular the sections set in Borneo in the 1860s, which chimes with my recent research into the empire in this region. Here we meet Sir Ralph Savage, a ‘white rajah’, who had fled India after too many ‘unspeakable acts.’ Like other fictional imperialists – most notably Ruddock in Joyce Cary’s Mr Johnson – he is obsessed with road building. But the road leads nowhere and is washed away whenever the rains come. Other ‘paternalist’ schemes, designed to justify his rule, also come to nothing. In all, it is a brilliantly elegant exploration of the contradiction at the heart of empire in this part of the world – Savage wants to ‘improve’ his realm, but when confronted with an invasion by the ‘real world’ in the form of Australian gold prospectors, he wants to protect the ‘innocence’ of the local people. All immensely thought-provoking and beautifully written throughout.
The Two Eleanors of Henry III by Darren Baker is a dual biography of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort, respectively the wife and sister of Henry III of England (reigned 1216-72). The book also casts a radically different light on the nature and motives of some of the famous protagonists of the era, notably Simon de Montfort, chief driver of the reform movement in England.
Money is a dominant theme. Everyone is out to get it, especially the Montforts. I have never been a great fan of Simon and his hair shirt, but had not realised quite how grasping and deceitful the man was. He and his wife attempted to sabotage the Treaty of Paris simply to pressure Henry to satisfy outstanding claims for cash.
The climax is reached in the great power-struggle of the reform period, when Henry and Simon (and their wives) ended up at daggers drawn. This was a tragedy on a personal as well as national level, as two couples who had known each other for decades ended up as bitter enemies.
This is an epic tale, recounting four extraordinary intertwined lives, and how their successes and failures wrought permanent changes in England. It ends on a slightly melancholy note, with both Eleanors relegated to the background in their declining years. Overall the Two Eleanors does a fine job of shining an overdue light on two fascinating and powerful – in the true sense of the word – medieval noblewomen.
The Queen’s Rival is a stunning look at the ‘later’ life of Cecily Neville from 1459 until 1483. This is not a ‘quiet’ period of history and to cover the tumultuous events, the author adopts the technique of recording the letters of the main protagonists, either from the pen of Cecily or from those who write to her.
The reader is quickly drawn into the story, not perhaps by the tumultuous external events of the Wars of the Roses taking place, but rather by the relationship between Cecily and her two sisters, Anne, Duchess of Buckingham and Katherine, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The words they share with each other are just what sisters might well say to each other, especially when they’re not likely to see each other soon. More importantly, the sisters, while fiercely loyal to their Neville inheritance, are not of one mind about who should rule England, and who has the right to rule England. It highlights just how destructive the War of the Roses was, and is a genius way of quickly ensuring the reader appreciates that families were ripped apart by the protracted war.
This is the story of the women of the later 15th century. It’s their voices that we hear, as they try and come to terms with the rise and fall all of them experience. There are moments when the narrative is hard to read, either because you know what’s going to happen, or just because you really feel for Cecily and don’t want her to experience the tribulations that she does.
I am a huge fan of Anne O’Brien and the ‘forgotten’ women of the medieval period in England. While the author may stress that Cecily is not really a forgotten woman, I was not really aware of her before reading this book. The mother of two kings, the grandmother of future kings, and yet she could also have been queen herself. What an interesting life she led.
This terrible year has forced re-evaluations in so many ways, coincidently reflected in the wonderful variety of revisionist histories that have appeared over the past twelve months. It’s hard to choose among them, but Fifth Sun by Camilla Townsend redraws the Aztec world, starting by firmly restoring their name, Mexica, and their agency in changing times. Based on the neglected writings of indigenous peoples, Townsend amplifies their voices and gifts us a different view of the Americas. It’s a marvellous book.
I’m hardly the first to see the writing of history as a kind of speculative fiction of the past, and there can be no better demonstration than Hilary Mantel’s triumphant conclusion to her Cromwell trilogy. The Mirror and the Light, and its two inseparable predecessors, together represent the greatest feat of historical imagination this century, arguably ever. Just an extraordinary literary achievement, sustained over more than a decade, and urgently important for anyone engaged in the exploration of the past.
I have been looking forward to The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson. I was in America this summer when it was published, and rather than download it on to my Kindle, I had my local bookshop in London send me the hardback.
I wasn’t disappointed; it was a real joy to read. It’s the latest in a series about the disreputable rake Tom Hawkins, his disreputable girlfriend Kitty and his even more disreputable urchin sidekick Sam as they duck and weave through the streets of eighteenth-century London. This time the story revolves around the appearance of a long-lost relative from the plantations of the West Indies, with slave girl in a silver collar in tow. The plot crackles with twists and turns, but it is Antonia Hodgson’s sense of humour that I enjoy most, which somehow manages to inhabit both the eighteenth and the twenty-first centuries with equal assurance.
I also enjoyed A Map of the Damage by Sophia Tobin. A story of secrets and lies buried within the bombed-out shell of a City livery company in London in the Blitz. Original and thought-provoking.
Peter Thompson, The Quest for Freedom: The Life of Alexander Kerensky, the Russian Unicorn is a very fine biography of a key individual of 20th century Russia. If Kerensky had taken just a few different decisions, then no Lenin, no Stalin, probably no Putin. Well-researched, with new information and a telling eye for detail, Thompson has written a minor masterpiece. Kerensky lived until 1970, a full 53 years after his moment in history’s spotlight. If only he’d been tougher, what misery he might have prevented.
Allan Mallinson’s The Tigress of Mysore continues the splendid and incredibly true-to-life story of Matthew Hervey, colonel of the 6th Light Dragoons, as he struggles against the murderous thuggee bands terrorizing innocent Indian travellers. There are personal and professional issues that I won’t divulge. You don’t have to have read the earlier Hervey novels to enjoy this, but you’ll want to go back to them if you do. This is historical fiction at its immensely well-researched best.