The 12 best historical fiction titles of 2024 so far.

June 10, 2024

The best historical fiction of 2024 so far

Twelve excellent historical novels from the first half of the year.

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The legend of La Llorona (the Weeping Woman) has endured for centuries in Latinx culture, with roots tracing back to 1500s Mexico. A malevolent spirit who drowned her children after discovering her husband’s infidelity, La Llorona now roams the Earth cursing all who encounter her with lifelong misfortune and unhappiness. With her debut novel, Malas, Marcela Fuentes puts her own electrifying spin on this tale, updating it for the 21st century into a fiery family epic teeming with rage and revenge.

Set in the dusty border town of La Cienega, Texas, Malas follows two social outcasts separated by decades yet bound together in a surprising way. In 1951, Pilar Aguirre, mother to a young son and expecting her second child, is cursed by a crone who claims to be married to Pilar’s husband. The discord sown by this encounter ricochets through the subsequent weeks, months and years, rending relationships and ruining lives. Forty years later, another mysterious old woman appears in town, this time causing an uproar at the funeral of Lulu Muñoz’s grandmother. Headstrong and seeking to annoy her domineering father, 14-year-old Lulu strikes up a clandestine relationship with the stranger; as friendship blossoms and their connection deepens, the devastating way in which the two are linked gradually comes to light, dredging up old secrets that threaten to throw La Cienega into chaos once again.

Readers will devour Malas. Fuentes’ propulsive plotting; rich and precise depiction of Tejano culture; complex characters; and thoughtful exploration of female anger, grief and intergenerational trauma combine to form a fully immersive reading experience that—for all its specificity—will be compelling and meaningful to readers of all backgrounds. Brimming with brio, Fuentes’ deliciously defiant debut breathes new life into classic lore and heralds the arrival of a bold new literary powerhouse.

“[O]vercoming generational trauma might sometimes be related to not accepting a fate-driven narrative.” Read our Q&A with Marcela Fuentes about Malas.

With her debut novel, Malas, Marcela Fuentes puts her own electrifying spin on the legend of La Llorona (the Weeping Woman), turning it into a fiery family epic teeming with rage, revenge and revolution.
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The Safekeep, Yael van der Wouden’s debut novel, is set in 1961 rural Holland. At 30, Isabel is living in the house where she was raised after the death of her father forced the family’s move from the city and into a furnished house their uncle Karel found for them. Isabel lives a circumscribed and watchful life, guarding her dead mother’s things, suspecting the maid of theft and fending off the attentions of a flirtatious neighbor. Of her brothers, Louis and Hendrik, she is closer to Hendrik, although she disapproves of his friend Sebastian, suspecting a deeper connection. Of Louis and the steady stream of girlfriends he introduces to her, she thinks even less. Until Eva.

The siblings meet Eva at a dinner out. With her clumsy manners and brassy dyed hair, she hardly impresses, and Isabel is shocked when Louis brings her to the house, telling Isabel that Eva must stay there while he goes away on business and showing Eva to their mother’s room. Even under Isabel’s watchful eye, things begin to disappear—a spoon, a bowl, a thimble. More alarming to Isabel is the overwhelming attraction she feels to Eva, an attraction that spills into an obsessive, intensely depicted sexual relationship.

Van der Wouden may be familiar as the author of the 2017 essay “On (Not) Reading Anne Frank,” which explored what it means to be a Dutch Jewish writer and her complicated relationship to Frank’s legacy. As Isabel and Eva’s connection unfolds, Van der Wouden’s true subject comes into view: how ordinary people were implicated in the ethnic cleansing that took place during World War II. Even in peacetime, Isabel and her peers are quick to notice people who appear different, with a fierce disgust that Isabel risks turning on herself as she comes to terms with her sexuality. A novel of redemption as much as revenge, The Safekeep has the pacing and twists of a thriller, while delving into the deeper issues laid bare by the Holocaust.

In Yael van der Wouden’s mesmerizing debut, The Safekeep, Isabel lives a circumscribed life in her dead mother’s house until her brother’s girlfriend comes to stay, alarming Isabel when an obsessive attraction develops between the two.
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Welsh author Carys Davies (West) is still breaking into American readership, but it won’t take her long. Her latest historical novel, Clear, which thoughtfully explores a passionate friendship set against religious and civic changes in mid-19th century Scotland, is bound to expand her audience.

John Ferguson is a poor Presbyterian minister struggling to provide for himself and his wife, Mary. Desperate, he accepts a challenging mission to evict the remaining inhabitants of a remote Shetland island. Soon after his arrival on the island, he is injured in a fall while walking the cliffs, and his unconscious body is found by Ivar, the island’s sole occupant. Ivar brings John to his croft and nurses him back to health. Unable to understand one another (Ivar speaks a dialect of an archaic Scandinavian language called Norn) the two men form a tenuous friendship and gradually share enough words to communicate, though John postpones admitting to Ivar why he is really on the island. Long-isolated and having had only animals for company, Ivar takes pleasure in living with and caring for another person, while John, who continues to keep his mission a secret, begins to have second thoughts about the morality of his assignment. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Mary grows uneasy with the nature of her husband’s undertaking and resolves to follow him, undertaking the difficult passage north on her own.

Davies sets her novel at the crux of two historical upheavals: the 1843 break of the Free Presbyterian Church from the Church of Scotland over the issue of landowners influencing the placement of clergy, and the final years of the Scottish Clearances, in which hundreds of rural poor were evicted to create additional grazing land for livestock. Davies is attentive to these details but keeps her focus on the relationships as the narrative moves seamlessly between the three main characters. With breathtaking descriptions of the natural world and a tender exploration of an unexpected friendship, Clear challenges readers’ expectations, offering a powerful and unusual story of connection.

Carys Davies sets Clear at the crux of two historic upheavals in 1800s Scotland but keeps her focus on her characters.
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Claire Messud’s enthralling sixth work of fiction recounts the wanderings of three generations of the Cassar family over seven decades, from the Nazi occupation of France in June 1940 to the passing of François Cassar in Connecticut in 2010.

This Strange Eventful History opens with 8-year-old François wanting to write to his father in Salonica, Greece, to alert him about the French surrender. His father Gaston, a French naval attaché, has of course heard the sorry news and considers his options with a mixture of doubt, shame and defiance. He longs for his wife Lucienne, who has been and will be to the end of their days his “aIni,” his source. She and their children, François and Denise, have fled to their home in Algeria to wait out the conflict.

The Cassars are French Algerians, pieds-noirs, who have lived in Algeria since its colonization. They feel French, but they are regarded as outsiders in mainland France, especially after the Algerian revolution in 1954. François’ sense of not fitting in is one reason he leaves for America. Gaston, in a new career in the booming oil business, also learns he doesn’t fit in. A colleague tells him, “We lost the war, my friend. . . . To the victor go the spoils. The future is in oil, and the future is in English.” For this family, every success carries a germ of defeat.

But it isn’t only business and geopolitics that stymies the Cassars. Some whiff of family shame or dysfunction leaves François always feeling inadequate and warps his sister Denise into a delusional and increasingly alcoholic spinster, devoted to the care of their aging parents.

With thrilling, adventurous sentences, Messud leads readers along the elusive edges of life, where family and national histories entwine. Her descriptions of people and places are beautiful, precise and illuminating. Her understanding of the human soul is profound. This is reason enough to read the novel.

Yet the novel’s magic casts a wider spell. Chloe, a third-generation Cassar, is a novelist, like Messud. She wishes to write about and understand her family’s uncomfortable history. She observes, “A story is not a line; it is a richer thing, one that circles and eddies, rises and falls, repeats upon itself.” In This Strange Eventful History, Messud has given us that richer thing. It is amazing.

Read our interview with Claire Messud for This Strange Eventful History.

With thrilling, adventurous sentences, Claire Messud leads readers along the elusive edges of life, where family and national histories entwine. Her understanding of the human soul is profound.

Percival Everett brings The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’s enslaved supporting character, Jim, into the foreground of his new novel, James, a reworking of the Mark Twain classic. Though James stays with Huck Finn’s characters, setting and first-person perspective, it’s Jim, not Huck, who narrates this story. Jim overhears that he’s about to be sold to a man in New Orleans, and, as in the original, he runs, landing on Jackson Island, where he encounters Huck, who’s faked his own death to flee his abusive, alcoholic father. The two set out together, floating down the Mississippi.

James, like Huck Finn, is a picaresque tale, one of improbable adventures and moments of reunion. Jim and Huck encounter the con men the Duke and Dauphin, and though this duo get their comic moments, Everett highlights their quick turn to brutality. Jim and Huck are soon separated, and Jim recounts a series of horrors—Everett pulls no punches in depicting white enslavers’ treatment of enslaved people—leavened with the unexpected connections Jim makes. Unlike in Huck Finn, James’ Jim can read and write, secretly reading books from his enslaver’s library. In a feverish dream encounter after he’s bitten by a snake, Jim debates Voltaire, proponent of liberty and equality, forcing Voltaire to admit to his own racism. All the while, he longs for his wife and daughter, determined to gain his own freedom and theirs.

Everett balances a moral clarity about the atrocities of slavery with a dry, Twainian humor, even turning Twain’s dialect on its head to great effect: In this telling, enslaved people use this stereotypical “slave” dialect only around white people, so as to seem unthreateningly foolish, while laughing about it together in private. On his journey, Jim repeatedly encounters other enslaved people being brutalized by white people, but he’s powerless to intervene; life has taught him that to do so leads to greater violence, and sometimes death. Throughout, the novel’s revelations feel both surprising and convincing, and its explosive, cathartic ending points at the possibility of hope for Jim and his family.

In an era of retellings, James stands out for staying true to Twain’s voice, tale-spinning talent and humor, while also accurately depicting what Twain failed to acknowledge: the reality of life for enslaved people. In revealing Jim’s full humanity, deep thinking and love through his hero’s journey, Everett has written a visionary and necessary reimagining.

In an era of retellings, Percival Everett’s James stands out for staying true to Mark Twain’s voice, tale-spinning talent and humor, while also accurately depicting what Twain failed to acknowledge: the reality of life for enslaved people.
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Imagine finding yourself in the company of a stranger. A simple hello organically morphs into hours of conversation, full of resonating and enlightening stories. This is the feeling one gets while reading Amitava Kumar’s latest novel, My Beloved Life. Telling the life story of a man named Jadunath Kunwar, the novel is a moving collection of memories and experiences entangled with world history.

Born in 1935 in the tiny farming village of Khewali, India, without electricity, money or much else, to a mother who nearly died of a snake bite while pregnant, Jadunath (or Jadu) nevertheless seems destined for big things. Curiosity and a thirst for knowledge lead him away from peasant life to the city of Patna where he eventually becomes a respected professor, a political activist and a loving husband and father. Jadu’s story provides glimpses of life in rural India steeped in superstition and faith, and of India’s struggles for equality and progress from post-independence to the modern day.

In contrast to Jadu’s upbringing, his daughter, Jugnu, is born in the bustling city of Patna in 1965. Raised in a loving home, surrounded by her father’s intellectual circle, Jugnu grows up to be a passionate journalist for CNN in the United States. Jugnu’s perspective adds deeply to our understanding of Jadu beyond his words alone.

The novel feels very intimate as it unfolds in the first person from Jadu and then Jugnu’s perspectives. In the skillful blending of individual experience with extraordinary world events, Kumar’s journalistic background shines through, often making one forget that this is a work of fiction. Additionally, Kumar’s own upbringing in a small town near Patna, and his experiences as an immigrant and professor in the United States, add a very powerful element to his ultimate message that everyone has a story that is worth remembering.

Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and mundane, My Beloved Life is storytelling at its best.

Telling the life story of a man named Jadunath Kunwar, My Beloved Life is a moving collection of memories and experiences entangled with world history.

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