IN A RECENT article in The New Yorker, ‘The Dead Are Real’, Larissa MacFarquhar described historical fiction as ‘a pioneer country without fixed laws’ but seemed reluctant, at least initially, to grant it a stable literary status. The recent success of the first two volumes of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy is touted as indicative of a resurgence of interest in historical fiction and to some a renewed degree of acceptance. Does such a trend indicate that interest in historical fiction is increasing, or has it always been popular and has now reached new levels of legitimacy? Perhaps the movement could also be attributed to the rise of speculative fiction in all its forms, including alternate history, since the turn of the century. Perhaps our interest in the past is peaking, as we rush towards the possible end game of our future. Whatever the reasons, a relationship to notions of truth or ‘the real’ and how we perceive it is what drives interest in these stories.
In nearly every definition of historical fiction, reference will be made to how the genre illuminates aspects of the past but makes us, in turn, reflect on the present. And that link between the present and the past can be a contentious space, as the furore generated by the publication of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (Text, 2005) demonstrated. We argue about histories – small histories, large histories – with our lovers, our families, our enemies and friends, because even though truth is an elusive thing we continue to believe that history is something fixed and permanent. Something we might know for sure. But how can we? Historical accuracy is tenuous; it depends on who’s telling the story, where they are telling it and why. No one owns history – the best we can do is honour it. Current heated debates about the discovery of skeletal remains in Greece and Asia, which contradict the accepted ‘Out of Africa’ archaeological theory of human development, are examples of how the goal posts can shift, however reluctant some people are to recognise the change.
Fiction offers us a less fixed method of contemplation – it is never about truth as much as it is about the evocation of authenticity; making the reader believe is the magic of fiction.
EVERY HISTORY HAS many sides and historical fiction, however controversial, operates on this borderline of fact and record and opinion – in that less assured space between what we think we know about the dead and what they actually did. Fiction might offer motivations, observations, emotional insight and, however subjective, this kind of illumination helps us. Readers will always make up their own minds. What all these stories, all this information allows us to do is imagine for ourselves.
What do we learn, however, from looking back? Nostalgia can be a trap. All that some historical fiction does is highlight our assumptions about the past – it takes us back to all the excuses made for never unearthing anything, for not learning. It sounds good. It feels real. But it’s fake. A tracing. A bad costume party. The best historical fiction takes the reader into the past and shakes the cage, undoing preconceived notions, unravelling what we think we might already know. It makes us feel something else.
What we’re offering readers here is more than bland reminiscence and generic cliché. These authors have brought something elusive back into life, something forgotten back into the frame. They’ve brought us out of the museum and into a heady simulation, where the power of narrative allows us to taste and breathe and walk around in the richness of days and nights already passed. You will see Australia through the eyes of an Afghan cameleer, the daughter of a Japanese Kamikaze, a couple whose goldfield nostalgia is shaken by a grimmer reality, a young girl witness to a past global pandemic and a washed-up whaler on Stradbroke Island.
Places you might recognise but do not really know. Welcome to the outlaw country of this collection, where the dead are real and speaking because stories can endure.