Where Literary Fiction and Historical Fiction Meet

Staff PicksMartin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library - Central Library

Where Literary Fiction and Historical Fiction Meet

Five great works of 21st-century literature rooted in the past

Here are five novels published this century that combine exceptional literary merit with an historical setting.

The Known World by Edward P. Jones
A masterful, Tolstoyan panorama of life in antebellum central Virginia. Cruelty and decency coexist in this tale of rural life, and the large cast of characters omits nothing, including a free Black man who owns slaves (Jones caused something of a stir for including such a character). Jones offers many insights into human psychology and the society of the time, as well as exhibiting strikingly inventive use of shifts in time and narrative focus.

Matrix by Lauren Groff
The title has nothing to do with computer hackers and black-clad cyberwarriors. Set in 12th-century England, the novel tells the story of Marie de France, a figure mostly lost from the historical record -- but here she is conceived as the Mother Superior (or Matrix) of a neglected abbey who leads her community of nuns through various challenges toward spiritual salvation and worldly prosperity, all the while struggling with her own desires and ambitions in an unsympathetic medieval world. Terse and refined prose and a chronicle of an ultimately triumphant life.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
A novelization of the events surrounding the early 17th-century “witch trials” in Vardo, an isolated Norwegian fishing community. Hargrave vividly depicts the elemental power of nature and the daily challenges faced by the villagers – and the descent into suspicion, jealousy, superstition, and murder. 

Milkman by Anna Burns
The brilliantly told adventures and reflections of an 18-year old woman in Northern Ireland during the 1970s as she navigates social and religious tensions, deals with family and friends, and tries to deflect the attentions of Milkman, a stalker and member of a paramilitary group. Burns' wry, energetic, and discursive narrative is a supreme achievement, and her portrait of the gray menace of The Troubles is engrossing.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Follows the narrator, a young half-Vietnamese, half-French man from humble beginnings in the 1950s through the Vietnam War, to California in the 1970s and 1980s and back to southeast Asia. Provides remarkable insight into the external and internal conflicts experienced under the pressures of geopolitics and globalization: questions arise concerning national identity as an element of the self, ideological allegiance, the experience of exile, the effect of armed conflict, and cultural misunderstanding. Nguyen's narrator is both an individual and a victim of history, as were so many people around the world in the 20th century.

About the author of this list: Peter C. works in the Adult Services division at MLK Memorial Library where, among other things, he helps run two DCPL book discussion groups: the MLK Library Literary Book Club and the Daughters of Mary Shelley Book Club. He most often reads fiction and, if there were more hours in day that did not have to be devoted to work or the necessary tasks of life, he thinks he would by now have read more of his favorite authors, such as Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Banville. But he also enjoys reading history, especially European history. As of March 2023 he's reading Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention -- and How to Think Deeply Again and Fates and Furies.