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7 historical fictions to take you away from 2020 anxiety

Winny Triswandhani
Winny Triswandhani

Avid reader and observer of literature and the performing arts

Jakarta  /  Wed, October 7, 2020  /  11:17 am
7 historical fictions to take you away from 2020 anxiety

Window to the world: Spending more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic could give you more time to open your horizons about the world by reading books. (Shutterstock/Enrique Arnaiz Lafuente)

Our anxiety caused by being confined at home for months and months has slowly shifted to anxiety about the unprecedented changes that are happening in the many facets of our lives, and wondering when we can go back to life as we knew it. Our traveling plans will have to wait while we hold our breath underneath our cloth masks whenever we step out of our home confinement.

In the meantime, I find solace and escape through historical fictions. There’s nothing like delving deep into history to remind us of human resilience while also distracting us temporarily -- in a good way -- from our current troubling situation. When we read about historical figures chattering, scheming, fighting, romancing and eventually dying, the current distressing situation disappears temporarily from our mind, reminding us of the timelessness of the human struggle. And, as a result, maybe once we’re done with the books, our jagged breath will slowly become calmer again.

Here are some page-turners to remind you that in the big picture, our current situation is merely a blip in history.

1. Robert Graves - I Claudius

Robert Graves wrote the novel in 1934 as an autobiography of Claudius and his unlikely ascent to become emperor of Rome. Crippled, lame and thought to be an idiot, Claudius had to literally play the fool to survive the murderous internal politics and dangerous jostling of power in the most powerful house in ancient history. In Graves’ hands, the timeless novel brought to life a family worthy of Game of Thrones inspiration. His grandmother, Livia, easily poisons rivals to keep her husband’s power. His sister, Livilla, casually disposes of her husband before being starved to death by her own mother. His nephew, Caligula, thinks himself as God and demands devotion as such. Meanwhile, Claudius tries to keep his nose down and chronicle history dutifully while the world around him catches fire.

If you like this, you’ll love: The follow-up Claudius the God by the same author, chronicling his reign as Emperor; Augustus by John Williams; Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar.          

2. Anne Marie Selinko - Desiree

I particularly love this for the stranger-than-fiction satisfying ending. This novel chronicles the unbelievable true story of how the daughter of a silk merchant in Marseilles became the Queen of Sweden; and that’s after Napoleon Bonaparte dumped her. Imagine, you’re a young girl from Marseille who was unceremoniously ghosted by your fiancée and first love. Imagine if said fiancée became the world’s most respected military figure while marrying one of the most glamorous women in the country, becoming history’s original #CoupleGoals. Now imagine this happening while your own sister had married his brother, turning your ex-fiancée into your in-law. Desiree Clary could have been immortalized only in the list of poor jilted lovers, but she ended up as Queen of Sweden while Napoleon died alone in exile, his family ruined.

If you like this, you’ll love: Sandra Gulland's The Josephine B Trilogy for a page-turning chronicle of Napoleon and Josephine

3. Isabel Allende - The House of Spirit

Set in an unnamed South American country, Isabel Allende constructed a saga spanning three generations of the Trueba family centering on the hateful patriarch, Esteban Trueba. Colored by original magical characters including a globetrotting adventurer uncle, eccentric clairvoyant Clara and the beautiful green-haired mermaid-like Rosa, the book has one foot in a Latin country on the brink of revolution and another in a fantasy land. The absurdities that follow the Trueba family symbolize the political stand of the characters.

If you like this, you’ll love: Anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for its brand of magical realism and the Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

4. John Shors - Beneath a Marble Sky

When his wife passed away, Hindustan’s emperor Shah Jahan was shattered and poured his grief into building an unparalleled monument for his wife. This novel told the story of the Taj Mahal’s development, woven into the royal princess Jahanara’s own story of brutal arranged marriage, murderous family rivalries and her own forbidden love with the monument’s architect. Despite it being 350 pages long, the book is an easy read that also informs on issues such as women’s oppression and Hindu-Buddha-Islam tension during 17th century Hindustan.

5. Lisa See - The Snow Flower and Secret Fan

What makes this novel so special for me is not just the lyrical prose and exquisite details, but the overall theme that is rarely touched in fiction: the mystery of female friendship.

From the official summary, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a brilliantly realistic journey back to an era of Chinese history that is as deeply moving as it is sorrowful. Lily, the daughter of a poor farmer family at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old same”, in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men.

As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams and accomplishments. Together they endure the agony of foot-binding and reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive.

If you like this, you'll love: Memoirs of a Geisha; Lust, Caution (the film)

6. Mary Renault - The Persian Boy

These days the news seems to be filled with antagonists; our folk hero turns into an anti-hero. I just want to go back to falling in love with a flawless idol, and Alexander is as perfect as it gets. Told through the worshiping eyes of Alexander’s favorite eunuch and lover, Mary Renault’s Alexander is a beautiful, loving, cultured conqueror with an unmatched brilliance on the battleground who could do no wrong, apart from maybe drinking unboiled water amid a war that brought an early end to his life and world dominance. This tale is worthy of his demi-god, world-conquering myth that has lasted over 2,000 years.

If you like this, you’ll love: The entire Alexander trilogy from Mary Renault, Alexander at the World’s End by Tom Holt

7. Hilary Mantel - Bringing up the Bodies

With its dense dialogue and a plot that spans over 400 pages, this book is not the easiest read. The second installment of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Bringing up the Bodies is the most riveting as it drops the readers into Henry VIII’s most infamous chapter of history. Thomas Cromwell had to build a case to allow Henry to annul his marriage to Anne Boleyn while keeping his throne and breaking away from the Pope bloodlessly. If you love political intrigue from House of Cards to Games of Thrones, you’ll enjoy how Cromwell, a brilliant man from an unlikely plebeian background, continuously schemes against the wolves that circle the Tudor court.

If you like this, you’ll love: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George; The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory


Winny Triswandhani is an avid reader and observer of literature and the performing arts. She is a member of the COVID-19 virtual batch of the Baca Rasa Dengar book club and currently a communications practitioner in a tech company.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.