Historical Fiction from a modern perspective?
September 6, 2014 1:07 PM   Subscribe

I've realized that I really like historical fiction that isn't just straightforward historical fiction, and I'm looking for some more books of this type.

I'm not sure what label might best describe the type of book I'm looking for (postmodern? self-aware?) but the best example I can think of is The French Lieutenant's Woman - the story is set in the Victorian era, but is told by an omniscient narrator that comments on the story and time period from a modern perspective. The Crimson Petal and the White had a similar feel to me. Connie Willis' time-travel books (especially The Doomsday Book) seem to hit the same spot, so it also works if the modern perspective comes from a character within the story. (Not every time-travel book I've read fits my criteria - I think it needs to be more historical-fiction-y than time-travel-y). What are some other books I should check out?
posted by brittanyq to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe Kage Baker's Company novels, and as a wildcard, what about Sarah Waters? No explicit modern connection in the latter, but there's still something very different about them compared to standard historical fiction.
posted by wintersweet at 1:11 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Time and Again, by Jack Finney
posted by neat graffitist at 2:00 PM on September 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey

almost anything by Eric Kraft
posted by neat graffitist at 2:03 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier doesn't have an explicit "modern perspective"--I don't remember any framing device involving a contemporary person--but the views and actions of the characters are progressive in the sense that 1860s-era women are fully realized, multidimensional, and physically strong. They look forward to and enjoy sex. And socioeconomic barriers are probed with a distinctly modern perspective, which made for really enjoyable reading--even if/especially if you've seen the movie.
posted by magdalemon at 2:05 PM on September 6, 2014

Possession, of course.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:11 PM on September 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

Came in to suggest Finney's Time and Again. There is also the sequel, From Time to Time.
posted by trip and a half at 2:18 PM on September 6, 2014

Charles Johnson's Middle Passage.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:25 PM on September 6, 2014

Historiographic metafiction might be a useful search term, a lot of the aforementioned writers are on this list.
posted by Lorin at 2:31 PM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Given the "modern perspective of an in-work character" aspect, I cannot recommend Harry Turtledove & Judith Tarr's Household Gods highly enough.
posted by hanov3r at 2:56 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

An Imaginary Life by David Maloof.
posted by BibiRose at 3:33 PM on September 6, 2014

Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace deals with issues of narrative and historiography by looking at a historical crime from a modern perspective. The story is based on a real-life Canadian murder case from the 1800s in which a servant, Grace Marks, was accused of killing her employer, Thomas Kinnear. In the novel, Grace tells her story to a seemingly sympathetic doctor who wants to help her but also intends to use her to build his professional reputation. Although Dr. Jordan is Grace's Victorian contemporary, he ultimately stands in for the modern reader:
Above all, the novel makes clear that readers need to take responsibility for their own voyeurism, for a pan-Victorian tendency to lick lips and to believe all the contradictory things that are said about Grace. Grace knows herself as a romantic figure on the basis of the elision between her as murderess and paramour. Sex and death are a stylish combination, a confection that no self-respecting pornographer can resist. And Grace personifies the public’s ongoing macabre fascination with death; in any story, "the ladies must have blood, there is nothing delights them so much as a weltering corpse." Coming from the mouth of Thomas Kinnear (the man Grace allegedly murders), this statement can be read as mere irony, but in the larger context of Alias Grace itself, takes on a more sinister contemporary application. The reader, then or now, pants after the story of a celebrated murderess, and wants even more to hear the details of her seduction. That desire reveals every reader’s susceptibility to mesmerism, as we are mesmerized along with Grace, by Grace, by the whole sad story, an alias reader cast in the role of salivating voyeur.
It's well-written, absorbing, and, in my opinion, one of Atwood's best novels.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:44 PM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nthing Sarah Waters.

I would also suggest Howard Norman's novels. There's nothing overt about it - like French Lieutenant's Woman (one of my favourite books, btw), but they have a very similar feel, I guess you could call it 'extra-historical'. I would suggest trying The Museum Guard, or The Bird Artist (I enjoyed that, especially). They are not big books, so if you don't like it, no great loss.
posted by smoke at 3:55 PM on September 6, 2014

The much-discussed Outlander by Diana Gabaldon may fit the bill - 1940s nurse travels back to pre-Uprising Scotland.
posted by rednikki at 4:04 PM on September 6, 2014

If you can find it (I read it from the library and have never found a copy to buy), you might like Diana Norman's Fitzempress' Law. Diana Norman was a superb historical novelist, and in that one in particular she provided the reader with a way into the period in the shape of some reluctant time-travellers.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 4:59 PM on September 6, 2014

OP, I just have to warn you: Outlander is to The French Lieutenant's Woman as McDonalds is to Nobu.
posted by smoke at 5:16 PM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks is a story from the perspective of a (modern day) book conservator who is trying to understand the history of the (real) Sarajevo Haggadah. The novel recreates the circumstances the Haggadah found itself in as it was created and passed generation to generation, based on the conservator's investigation of details like microscopic fragments in the pages and the chemistry of the binding materials. The novel is a great read and there's lots of accurate history spanning 1400's to 1900's.
posted by gubenuj at 11:15 PM on September 6, 2014

Francis Spufford's Red Plenty is set in the early days of the Soviet utopian experiment, and is about 'the moment in the mid-20th century when people believed that the state-owned Soviet economy might genuinely outdo the market, and produce a world of rich communists and envious capitalists.'

It's half-novel, half-historical non fiction. I utterly loved it, especially the bits about the development of Soviet cybernetics. Here is a good review of what the book is trying to accomplish.
posted by beijingbrown at 5:51 AM on September 7, 2014

Octavia Butler's Kindred
posted by Zed at 12:40 AM on September 9, 2014

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