It seems likely that Robert Graves’ books will continue to be overshadowed by the (still excellent) 70s adaptation of I, Claudius for television. While the series of excellent, it has become something of a definitive version of the story. Moreover, I, Claudius takes place in a reasonably well-trafficked time in history. By contrast, Count Belisarius takes place in a time that may be less familiar to most readers.
Where I, Claudius breathes a sense of immediacy and life into the intrigue and backstabbing of real-life Roman politics, Count Belisarius takes place in sixth century Rome. No longer the power it once was, the empire is beginning to crumble, facing invasions from all sides. Given that Belisarius is a general, we are given insight into not only the military situation of the time, but the realities of military command in the sixth century, with particular note given to the strengths and shortcomings of the Roman army at the time.
It’s a fascinating book, delivered with the same sense of personal closeness to history that has made I, Claudius such an enduring work.
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The Secret Life of Bees
Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, a 14-year-old white girl in South Carolina in the 1960s. As well you might expect, it’s a story about a young girl navigating an environment that is, at times, deeply racist and often devoutly religious.
Having lost her mother at a young age, the book opens with Lily in the care of her abusive father and a maid called Rosaleen, who takes Lily under her wing. When Rosaleen is arrested, Lily helps her escape and the two hit the road together. They later find themselves back in Lily’s mother’s home town of Tiburon, where we begin to see more of the bees that lend the book its name.
At its best, what The Secret Life of Bees achieves is to take a time and a place that would be all too easy to communicate in terms dour and didactic, and instead present it as a vibrant space that real people had to navigate in the course of their lives.
Where it really excels is in the quality of its writing. There is a simple lyricality to the flow of Kidd’s prose that breathes life into a time in recent history that all too often feels more distant than it really is. Indeed, The Secret Life of Bees is a historical novel that helps place us in our own history by forcing us to interface with some of our recent past.
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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
While The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is not as strictly historical as some of the other books on the list, it is a down to earth tale of two young Jewish cousins producing comics during the second world war. Set in the New York of the 1940s, it’s a strangely intimate look at living and working in a relatively ordinary, even inconsequential job during a period when the vast majority of literature focuses on the war.
While Kavalier and Clay change jobs often, the core of the novel sees the two producing a superhero comic called The Escapist, in which the masked hero fights (among others) agents of the third reich. Given that the book is set in an America that hadn’t yet entered the war, there is feeling of helplessness as Europe is swallowed by Germany.
It’s a charming and underexplored historical moment, put into the broader context of Europe’s situation by the occasional vignettes as Joe Kavalier relates the story of his escape to his cousin, Sam Clay. His stories of a war-torn Europe are as often spectacular as they are horrifying, and cast the life the two lead in New York in stark relief.
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The Book Thief
The first thing you’ll notice about Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief is that it’s written from the point of view of Death. It’s a strange maneuver, and one that could easily have backfired in less capable hands. Instead, Death comes across as warm and compassionate. The book’s opening tells you all you need to know about its characterization of Death.
“First the colors.
Then the humans.
That's usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
***HERE IS A SMALL FACT***
You are going to die.
I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that's only the A's. Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.”
As in the case of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Book Thief is a book set during the second world war, but in which the war itself often seems distant. What we see instead are the implications of life in the time, which tends to be altogether more interesting. It follows the adventures of a foster girl Liesel Meminger who makes something of a habit of pinching the occasional book.
It’s a touching and heartfelt story, and one that manages not to be too morbid or heavy handed despite the serious subject matter and the fact that the story is literally narrated by Death himself.
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Also like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Diviners is another book set in early 20th century New York, though in this case the plot unfolds in the 1920s. Where the other books on this list might wander briefly into and out of the mystical, there’s usually some question as to the extent to which those events actually happen. By contrast, The Diviners is a fairly straightforwardly supernatural story, edging into horror.
The book follows Evie O’Neill, a 17 year-old girl with the psychic ability to divine a person’s most intimate secrets by holding an object belonging to them. As a punishment for her acting out, Evie’s parents send her to live with her uncle and work in his Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, which is about as successful as it sounds.
All of this might sound a little by-the-numbers, but the whole thing stacks up into a strange combination of superhero team-up and 1920s horror that’s hard to compete with. The only real difficulty is wading through the mire of slang from the era, which can grate a bit.
If you enjoy The Diviners, you’d do well to check out Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy of Victorian novels, starting with A Great and Terrible Beauty.
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