For literary novelists, the past is pressing

But recently the tone of these conversations has started to change. As history students know, fashions come and go; it is increasingly clear that the historical novel is adopted and reinvented.

In the 15 years before “Wolf Hall” gave Mantel its first Man Booker Award, in 2009, only one novel set before the 20th century had received the award. The Pulitzer story is similar: in 2017, “The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead’s novel about a female slave in the pre-war south, became the first pre-WWII fiction to win. the price in more than a decade. The book encountered the kind of critical language usually reserved for novels rooted in the reader’s own era: “urgent”, “timely”, “important”.

Whitehead’s novel – now a Barry Jenkins miniseries – is all of these, and his example has started to seem less lonely. “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi (2016), which examined the slave trade and its legacy across two continents and seven generations, claims to be the debut album in recent years. It was a historical novel known for using history not to hide from America’s “now”, but to confront it. Then there is George Saunders, who, after nearly two decades devoted to present and future-centric fiction, finally wrote “Lincoln in the Bardo” (2017), a novel about the death of the young son of the President Lincoln Willie during the Civil War. . “I was really worried that Lincoln’s subject matter would require or make the book a little stiff and 19th-century,” Saunders said of the novel’s 20-year gestation. When he brought his own inventive and restless sensibility to the form of historical fiction, he was awarded the Booker Prize.

Jennifer Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” (2017), which follows a young girl’s coming of age in 1940s New York, was nominated for the National Book Award and New York Times bestseller. “Inland” by Téa Obreht (2019), a reimagining of Arizona territory in 1893, and “How Much of These Hills Is Gold” (2020) by C. Pam Zhang, which takes place during the Gold Rush in California, breathed new life into the historic western. . And in March, Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet” (2020), a novel about Shakespeare’s England, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

One of the most talked about novels of this year so far is that of another literary writer who has stepped aside in the past: Kaitlyn Greenidge’s “Freedom,” which is set in post-Brooklyn. -civil war. Among the eminent novelists most associated with chronicling contemporary American life is Lauren Groff. But his next novel, “Matrix”, released in September, takes place in the 12th century.