Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The site of the last execution in Iceland, where Agnes was beheaded.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial RitesYet again a book has sent me falling down a rabbit hole.  I am fascinated, engrossed, compelled to find out more.  More about Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland in 1830. And here I am google imaging her, scouring Wikipedia, and historical records in search for an image, a grainy photo, a look at her handwriting or court records, or something more to put a face to the main character in Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.

So powerful is this debut novel, that I feel as though I know Agnes’ intimate and innermost thoughts, and at the time of reading I felt the icy chill of the inhospitable country, the heartbreak, the indignity and isolation.

Of course I love a good piece of historical fact-ion; a reimagining of true events that occurred over 180 years ago.  After visiting Iceland as a mere 17 year old, Hannah Kent was inspired to research and interpret the life and execution of Agnes, who was sentenced to death for her part in the gory murder of two men on a desolate farm.

While awaiting execution, Agnes was housed in the rural home of an official, Jon Jonsson, and his wife and daughters.  In Kent’s novel, the family is horrified to have a murderer in their midst, and are scared and disgusted at times by her presence.  However, her sheer human-ness and vulnerability fascinates Jonsson’s wife Margret, and soon the family are conflicted by an unavoidable sympathy, and a begrudging like for Agnes the woman.

There are moments in this book that are truly breathtaking.  Details of the brutal murder emerge gradually, as do the hardships of Agnes entire life.  The end will have you utterly convinced that Kent was there, 183 years ago on that chilly hillside.  And a simple gesture made towards Agnes in her final hours will have you sobbing for its simple and divine meaning.

Kent spent much of her life planning and researching what is a remarkable and moving novel.  I am envious of writers like her: people who have the ability to pick away at facts, and find their own interpretation of a story.  But to tell that story with such truisms and authenticity that it is hard to dispute the reality of it.  So Hannah, I am supremely jealous of your talent, but moreover grateful that you have slaved away to perfect and deliver such a gem to hungry readers like me!

In Short: As crisp and breathtaking as the chilly landscape of Iceland.

 

Picture above: The site of the last execution in Iceland, where Agnes was beheaded.

Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/1hFAO8V

The Secret Fate of Mary Watson by Judy Johnson

secret fateRemember in Primary School, when the theme for the term was Australian History?  You learnt all about Captain Cook, convicts, bushrangers and the gold rush.  If you were like me, you were fascinated by all the morbid details; death by scurvy, being gaoled for stealing bread, and the fact that teachers could dish out corporal punishment – ‘the strap’ was both terrifying and intriguing. The idea of a wooden school desk that opened from the top was tantalising, and the leather boots corsets and petticoats were even a bit princess like.  Did you get an old fashioned sepia photo from a pioneer settlement tourist park?  “No smiling children, no one looked happy in the olden days.”ye-olde

There wasn’t much reference to indigenous history, really.  Many of the ‘natives’ died of the flu (much like the allusive dinosaur) and they carried spears, boomerangs and women weren’t allowed to play the Didge. Oh, and there was the painting lesson where you broke up rocks and mixed them with water to create a new graffiti tool.  And during play-lunch, amateur pyros would try to start fires by rubbing sticks together; delighted and nervous squeals from the girls ensued.

Despite the gaps, I loved Australian history then.  I still do.  And so I loved this book.

The Secret Fate of Mary Watson is a compelling tale. Fiction mixed with historical events, mystery underpinned by actual journal entries from the late 1800s.

In 1879, 19-year old Mary Oxnam fled her family home in Queensland.  She was plain, penniless and alone, but had determination, independence and a feminist wit I didn’t expect to come across for the era.

Mary finds a job as a pianist in a Cooktown brothel, while her intelligence and stealth land her a lucrative, but dangerous, side-job as a spy. Embroiled in smuggling, espionage and a dirty trade for her day job, the tale is gritty and thrilling, and far from you typical history lesson.

All the characters Mary encounters are shady: it’s clear that she’s in danger – no matter who she’s siding with – but she knows it, which makes her both frustratingly risk taking, and remarkably brave.

She marries a brute for convenience and soon moves to Lizard Island; remote and crawling with all sorts of enemies – both natural and human. 

Her time on the island is intense and suspenseful.  Her living conditions are squalid.  Her marriage is quite revolting.  Her emotions are palpable and the rugged desolate environment is described as both threatening and beautiful.

Based on actual journal entries written by our heroine, the author has presented her own interpretation of Mary’s events which are speculative while compelling, heart wrenching and bleak.

An amazing and creative insight into a little known aspect of our history. 

 

In short: typically Australian, bleak and beautiful.

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

WildGirl_COVERI’m sure you’re familiar with once upon a times, and wicked step-mothers, poison apples, Prince Charmings and cottages in the woods.  I’ve always been captivated by the darker side of fairy tales, and the fact that the Brothers Grimm did not originally scribe such tales for children to enjoy.  For instance, did you know that Cinderella’s evil step mother made her ugly daughters slice off their heels with a knife to try and fit into the glass slipper.  The Prince only realising the truth when he noticed blood pooling in the shoe?  And our heroine Snow White was not merely sleeping, but dead when her Prince found her, and in an unsavoury twist, he fell in love with her rotting corpse and made his footmen carry her body in a glass casket?

Kind of gross right?  But darkly fascinating too.  And these folktales, coupled with a beautiful historical narrative, make The Wild Girl an excellent read for literature and history lovers alike.

Set in the early 19th century, as Napoleon Bonaparte invades most of Europe, we meet Dortchen Wild, a twelve year old girl who lives next door to Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm.   The Grimm Brothers are scholars, living a poor existence, but determined to publish a collection of translated folktales and stories.  They collect the tales from women they become acquainted with, including housemaids, Mothers and townsfolk, as well as the Wild sisters who live next door.

Dortchen falls in love with Wilhelm the moment she lays eyes on him, and over the course of two decades she tells him the tales that will one day become his famous published works.

Set in a time of drama, poverty and war, Dortchen not only battles her forbidden feelings for Wilhelm, but struggles with starvation, cold, grief and oppression.  Not to mention her day to day dealings with a tyrant of a Father.

I love that this book has intertwined the few facts known about the real Dortchen, with speculative events.  Forsyth has cleverly weaved Dortchen a fictional narrative that is believable and moving, intense and suspenseful.

The style is easy to digest, with language and dialogue reflective of the era.  As you read, you are transported to the kingdom of Hessen-Cassel and the stories that Dortchen relays are vaguely familiar yet somehow distant, and they all will give you goosebumps in the telling.

In Short:  With a sprinkle of literature and love; historical faction at its best.