The Best Historical Fiction of 2009

By ANNA MUNDOW

Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel

You could fly to London, drive to Hampton Court and glimpse Anne Boleyn in the palace’s shadows. Or you could open Mantel’s astonishing novel and be transported instantly to Tudor England as perceived by Thomas Cromwell, Royal enforcer and architect of the Reformation who growls “Believe nobody.” Mantel, however, makes us believe –- and see –- every detail.

Land of Marvels

Barry Unsworth

This slender, flawless novel places a flawed individual –- Somerville, an archaeologist excavating an Assyrian site in 1914 – in history’s path as the new Baghdad Railway encroaches, illegal oil exploration begins and World War looms. Sexual betrayal heightens the tension as Somerville’s tragedy fuses with that of the territory that Britain, in 1916, renames Iraq.

The Collector of Worlds

Iliya Troyanov

“He only did strange things,” one character says of Richard Burton, the 19th century explorer famous for mapping the source of the Nile and translating the Kama Sutra. Troyanov’s startling descriptions and sinuous narrative exercise a hypnotic hold as we follow Burton through India, Egypt and Africa on an imperial mission that becomes his spiritual education.

The Lieutenant

Kate Grenville

In 1788, a Royal Navy astronomer lands in New South Wales where, as tension between colonists and natives grows, he studies the alien sky and begins to document an aboriginal language that his very presence has doomed. Grenville’s economical lyricism conjures up the hallucinatory strangeness of this new continent and the human frailty that it mercilessly exposes.

The Elephant Keeper

Christopher Nicholson

Jenny, an elephant of the Enlightenment, passes into the care of a young groom tasked by his master with writing an account of the “half-reasoning Animal” in 1773. The subsequent adventures of Jenny and Tom may recall Dickens’ novels and the depiction of pre-industrial England Hardy’s, but Nicholoson’s subtle portrait of Enlightenment England is entirely his own.

Honorable Mentions:
Fatal Lies: A Max Liebermann Mystery, by Frank Tallis
Stone’s Fall, by Iain Pears
The Coral Thief, by Rebecca Stott
Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls
A Girl Made of Dust, by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi.