Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Historical novels and the 20th century

Historical novelists are rather prone to worry about what constitutes a historical novel (something that I've touched on before). A big issue is whereabouts in the 20th century historical novels end and contemporary fiction begins.

It seems to me that the question isn't primarily about the date, but rather about the way that the whole issue of period is addressed. This has been rather highlighted for me by a couple of books that I've read recently. The first was a crime thriller set in 1953. Although I was asked to review it as a historical novel, the period is almost incidental to the action. The writer touches on social issues, like the position of women and minority ethnic groups in the 50s, but it's purely incidental to the central business of finding out whodunnit. Some of the period details are just plain wrong and the analysis of society's attitudes is superficial.

Immediately after I finished this book, I turned to Sharon Robard's novel, Unforgivable. It's set in Sydney in 1966 and tells the story of a young woman who is sent away to have her illegitimate baby in a Catholic hospital so that it can be put up for adoption and she can return home with no one having known that she was pregnant. It's an extraordinary book and I found myself absolutely gripped by the story and wanting to know what happened to the girl and how the tragedy (for it was a tragedy) would work itself out. But quite apart from the quality of the writing and the storyline, the book works for the insight it gives us into Australian life in 1966. Everything that happens is firmly rooted in its time. The attitudes to unmarried mothers reflected the way in which women were perceived more generally. Robards repeatedly contrasts the young women in miniskirts with their mothers in hats and suit dresses even in an Australian summer, highlighting how, in those days, women's fashion was a political statement. The nuns are struggling to come to terms with the changes brought about by Vatican II, just as the Catholic Church is struggling to come to terms with the modern world that sees it as increasingly irrelevant. Australia has been dragged into the Vietnam War and the effect this has on the way that young people see society and, in this story, the immediate impact of the war on the women left behind is a recurring, if distant, motif.

Overall, you might well learn more about society in the 1960s from reading this novel than from many historical texts. It is, in every sense, a historical novel.

You probably haven't heard of Sharon Robards. The publisher, GMM Press, is so small it doesn't even show up on the first page of a Google search. This book is almost certainly doomed to obscurity because of the ludicrous state of modern publishing. If there were any justice, it would be a bestseller. Please do yourselves a favour and buy it.

I interview Sharon in the next post on this blog.

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