Book List

Best Historical Fiction of 2019

A stunning novel about queer love, womanhood, and personal and political revolution.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2019

  • Kirkus Prize
  • Kirkus Prize
    finalist

CANTORAS

In the shadow of a violent dictatorship, five queer women find the courage and strength to live their truth.

De Robertis’ (The Gods of Tango, 2015, etc.) latest novel starts in 1977 with the Uruguayan military dictatorship suppressing dissidents and homosexuals through rape, jailing, and disappearing. Calling themselves cantoras, or women who sing, five queer women begin to carve out a place for themselves in the world: Flaca, Romina, Anita “La Venus,” Malena, and Paz. Brought together by Flaca, the women take a weeklong trip to Cabo Polonio, a sleepy, secluded coastal village, where they find a haven among horrors. On the beach, the women laugh late into the night, make love unabashedly, and share secrets over whiskey and yerba maté. The friends become family. On their first trip, Paz, the youngest, begins to discover an alternative way of being: “A secret way to be a woman. A way that blasted things apart, that melted the map of reality.” Rich and luscious, De Robertis’ writing feels like a living thing, lapping over the reader like the ocean. Carefully crafted and expertly observed, each sentence is an elegant gift: “Stars clamored around a meager slice of moon,” and “she was keenly aware of [her] movements...as if a thread stretched between them, a spider’s thread, glimmering and inexhaustibly strong.” Over the course of three decades, the women fall in and out of love; have brushes with the brutal regime; defy familial and societal expectations; and, most of all, unapologetically live their lives as cantoras. At one point, the unhappily married La Venus wonders: “Why did life put so much inside a woman and then keep her confined to smallness?” De Robertis’ novel allows these women to break those confines and find greatness in themselves and each other.

A stunning novel about queer love, womanhood, and personal and political revolution.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-52169-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019

A wildly inventive and moving exploration of the human mind under conditions of duress.

MURMUR

A challenging literary experiment about the shifting nature of human consciousness, inspired by English computer scientist Alan Turing, who was persecuted for being gay.

British novelist and poet Eaves (The Absent Therapist, 2014, etc.) tells the story of Alec Pryor, an English mathematician modeled after Turing, in three sections. Part of a top-secret effort to decrypt coded German communications during World War II, Pryor is a prominent member of scientific and government circles after the war. He is also, however, a gay man at a time when homosexuality is a punishable offense under British law. Searching for intimacy under these conditions, he wanders a fairground and meets a man named Cyril, with whom he strikes up a sexual relationship. This is his downfall: A friend of Cyril's breaks into Pryor's apartment, and when he reports the crime, he's taken in for suspicion of homosexual acts. Soon, he finds himself under the control of Dr. Stallbrook, an analyst who oversees the chemical castration to which he's been sentenced. Stallbrook encourages Pryor to write, and these "notes to pass the time" become the hallucinatory dreamscapes of the book's second and third parts. As the synthetic estrogen does its work, Pryor's consciousness ranges back and forth in time, from Britain's hunter-gatherer past to a future in which machines replace human consciousness. Watching himself as if from afar, he comes to terms with the loss of control he suffers as his body changes. All the while, he is haunted by the memory of a figure from his schoolboy days, Christopher Molyneaux, a fellow student Pryor loved but whose friendship gradually faded. "I think he was told no good could come of our friendship, because of what I am, or rather, because of what, then, it was suggested I would become." In careful prose, Eaves prods at the limits of human consciousness as Pryor comes to grips with the changes wracking his body. All the while Eaves asks important questions about our ability to communicate our innermost thoughts to those we love. "What would a conversation be with instant, mutual apprehension of its themes?" Pryor wonders. Eaves has delivered a gripping narrative experiment that gives us a sense of what such an intimacy would be like.

A wildly inventive and moving exploration of the human mind under conditions of duress.

Pub Date: April 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-942658-64-1

Page Count: 184

Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

This is a humane, riveting, epic novel that spotlights marginalized historical voices.

OUT OF DARKNESS, SHINING LIGHT

A rollicking novel that retells the history of British colonial exploration in Africa from the perspective of historical figures who have otherwise been silenced.

Zimbabwean writer Gappah (The Book of Memory, 2016, etc.) tells the story of the black attendants who bore the Scottish explorer David Livingstone's corpse from present-day Zambia to the African coast in the late 19th century. As the prologue says, "This story has been told many times before, but always as the story of the Doctor." Gappah turns the tables by making Livingstone's attendants into protagonists. Our heroes are Halima, a young slave woman Livingstone purchased as a partner for his assistant, the abusive and cruel Amoda; and Jacob Wainwright, a former slave from East Africa who was educated by Christian missionaries in Mumbai. Halima is a jovial and headstrong young woman who speaks boisterously despite her status. "Why any man would leave his own land and his wife and children to tramp in these dreary swamps...is beyond my understanding," she wonders about Livingstone. Jacob is Halima's opposite, a self-serious young man who keeps a journal which he hopes will be published in the future. When Livingstone dies of malaria, his attendants decide to carry his body to the coast in a display of loyalty, so that it may be carried back to England. After burying his heart in the village where he died, the band sets off toward Zanzibar in a show of dedication. The arduous journey through hostile terrain gradually erodes their reverence for the doctor, though. Halima begins to wonder how worthy he is of her dedication. "Was he worth it? What were we doing, taking a father to his children when he had let one of those children die?" Meanwhile, Jacob reads Livingstone's journals and finds a man whose anti-slavery ideals clash with his actions as a colonialist explorer. The journey to the coast turns out to be an education in how the band is oppressed by colonial power. Along the way, though, Gappah captures the diverse cultural milieu of colonial Africa with compelling detail. The result is a rich, vivid, and addictive book filled with memorably drawn characters.

This is a humane, riveting, epic novel that spotlights marginalized historical voices.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-9821-1033-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

It will break your heart, and in the breaking, fill you with bittersweet but luminous joy.

PHANTOMS

Two families seek to make peace with their past as a young novelist attempts to overcome his war-tossed demons.

Kiefer (The Animals, 2015, etc.) begins his novel by introducing us to the achingly beautiful memory of Ray Takahashi, a young Japanese-American soldier returned from fighting for a country that had forced his family to abandon their home for an internment camp. He returns to the orchards of California, looking for his childhood sweetheart, Helen Wilson. Following this opening scene, we learn that the novel is, in fact, narrated by a different character, John Frazier, who, upon his return from a devastating tour in Vietnam in 1969, helps his aunt, Evelyn Wilson, and their former neighbor, Kimiko Takahashi, try to uncover, or keep covered, various sins and mysteries of the 1940s. To add another layer, Frazier, a novelist, is actually reflecting on the story in 1983, when he finally learns the truth about Ray’s life. It’s a complex narrative structure, but this allows Kiefer to constantly overlay past and present and to recognize, through John, the cycles in which his character, and in fact the country, remains trapped—cycles of racism, cycles of war, and cycles of young men who return home guilty of crimes, the full ramifications of which they couldn’t possibly understand. Yet for all this, the novel—certainly anti-war, certainly condemning our country’s dark past—is full of quavering beauty, unbreakable love, and fragile, relentless hope. “Sweet life,” Kiefer-as-John writes to end these interlocking, deeply tragic stories. “Have you not been with me all the while?” In the hands of a writer as skilled and gifted as Kiefer, the answer can only be yes, for sweet life spills from every perfect word.

It will break your heart, and in the breaking, fill you with bittersweet but luminous joy.

Pub Date: April 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-87140-481-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

The racism, classism, and sexism of 50 years ago wrapped up in a stylish, sexy, suspenseful period drama about a newsroom...

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2019

  • New York Times Bestseller

LADY IN THE LAKE

Baltimore in the 1960s is the setting for this historical fiction about a real-life unsolved drowning.

In her most ambitious work to date, Lippman (Sunburn, 2018, etc.) tells the story of Maddie Schwartz, an attractive 37-year-old Jewish housewife who abruptly leaves her husband and son to pursue a long-held ambition to be a journalist, and Cleo Sherwood, an African-American cocktail waitress about whom little is known. Sherwood's body was found in a lake in a city park months after she disappeared, and while no one else seems to care enough to investigate, Maddie becomes obsessed—partly due to certain similarities she perceives between her life and Cleo's, partly due to her faith in her own detective skills. The story unfolds from Maddie's point of view as well as that of Cleo's ghost, who seems to be watching from behind the scenes, commenting acerbically on Maddie's nosing around like a bull in a china shop after getting a job at one of the city papers. Added to these are a chorus of Baltimore characters who make vivid one-time appearances: a jewelry store clerk, an about-to-be-murdered schoolgirl, "Mr. Helpline," a bartender, a political operative, a waitress, a Baltimore Oriole, the first African-American female policewoman (these last two are based on real people), and many more. Maddie's ambition propels her forward despite the cost to others, including the family of the deceased and her own secret lover, a black policeman. Lippman's high-def depiction of 1960s Baltimore and the atmosphere of the newsroom at that time—she interviewed associates of her father, Baltimore Sun journalist Theo Lippman Jr., for the details—ground the book in fascinating historical fact.The literary gambit she balances atop that foundation—the collage of voices—works impressively, showcasing the author's gift for rhythms of speech. The story is bigger than the crime, and the crime is bigger than its solution, making Lippman's skill as a mystery novelist work as icing on the cake.

The racism, classism, and sexism of 50 years ago wrapped up in a stylish, sexy, suspenseful period drama about a newsroom and the city it covers.

Pub Date: July 23, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-239001-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2019

The final, luminous chapter is six pages that will take your breath away.

INLAND

A frontier tale dazzles with camels and wolves and two characters who never quite meet.

Eight years after Obreht’s sensational debut, The Tiger’s Wife (2011), she returns with a novel saturated in enough realism and magic to make the ghost of Gabriel García Márquez grin. She keeps her penchant for animals and the dead but switches up centuries and continents. Having won an Orange Prize for The Tiger’s Wife, a mesmerizing 20th-century Balkan folktale, Obreht cuts her new story from a mythmaking swatch of the Arizona Territory in 1893. The book alternates between the narratives of two complex, beset protagonists: Lurie, an orphan and outcast who killed a boy, and Nora, a prickly frontierswoman with her own guilty conscience. Both speak to the dead. Lurie sees ghosts from early childhood and acquires their “wants,” while Nora keeps up a running conversation with her daughter, Evelyn, dead of heatstroke as a baby but aging into a fine young woman in her mother’s mind. Obreht throws readers into the swift river of her imagination—it takes a while to realize that Lurie is addressing all his remarks to a camel. The land is gripped by terrible drought. As Nora’s homestead desiccates, her husband leaves in search of water, and her older sons bolt after an explosive dispute. An indignant local drunk wonders whether “anybody else in this town [had] read an almanac or history in their lives? What were they all doing here, watching the sky, farming rock and dust?” Still, a deep stoicism, flinty humor, and awe at the natural world pervade these characters. They are both treacherous and good company. Here is Nora, hyperaware of a man who’s not her husband: “Foremost on her mind: the flimsiness of her unlaundered shirt and the weight of her boots.” Lurie, hiding among the U.S. Army’s camel cavaliers (you can look them up), is dogged down the years by Arkansas Marshal John Berger. Their encounters mystify both men. Meanwhile, there are head lice, marvelous, dueling newspaper editorials, and a mute granny with her part to play.

The final, luminous chapter is six pages that will take your breath away.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9286-1

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

Altogether satisfying. Mix Alan Furst and André Aciman, and you’ll have a feel for the territory in which this well-plotted...

THE FLIGHT PORTFOLIO

An elegant, meditative novelistic reconstruction of critical years in the life of Varian Fry, the American classicist who is honored at Yad Vashem as “righteous among the nations” for his work rescuing victims of the Holocaust.

Focusing on the era that informed her first novel, The Invisible Bridge (2010), Orringer opens with an encounter in which Marc Chagall, one of the most beloved of modern artists, figures. He is living in Vichy France, convinced that because it is France he will be kept safe from the Nazis—“These things happened in Germany.” he says. “They won’t happen here. Not to us.” His interlocutor is Varian Fry, who, under the auspices of the Emergency Rescue Committee, is combing the country for a couple of hundred “artists, writers, and intellectuals,” most of them Jewish or politically suspect, who similarly imagined themselves to be safe in France even as the Holocaust begins to unfold and the Gestapo arrest lists lengthen. Fry has allowed himself a month to get those 200 sure victims to safety, and in doing so, as his old friend—and more—Elliott Grant, a shadowy figure of many connections, warns him, he is proving “inconvenient to the American diplomatic mission in France.” The cloak-and-dagger element of Orringer’s story is effective, though it runs somewhat long. Woven into the action is the slow reconciliation between Fry and Grant, whose friendship is deep but at first tentative, finally heating. Orringer nicely captures two worlds, the fraught one of refugee rescue and the more genteel but still complicated one of intellectuals in orbit, with the likes of Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, and Victor Serge among the cast of characters. The central point of intrigue, providing a fine plot twist, is also expertly handled, evidence of an accomplished storyteller at work.

Altogether satisfying. Mix Alan Furst and André Aciman, and you’ll have a feel for the territory in which this well-plotted book falls.

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-307-95940-9

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

Comparisons with Gabriel García Márquez are inevitable and likely warranted. But this novel’s generous spirit, sensory...

THE OLD DRIFT

The past, present, and future of an African nation is filtered with humane wit, vibrant rhetoric, and relentless ingenuity through the interweaving sagas of three very different families.

The year is 1904, and an itinerant would-be photographer named Percy Clark has wandered from his native England to a colonial outpost along the Zambezi River in what was then known as the Northwestern Rhodesia territory. One momentous day, Clark, addled by fever, is stumbling around the lobby of the Victoria Falls Hotel and somehow manages to inadvertently pull a hank of hair from the pate of the hotel’s Italian manager, whose 5-year-old daughter angrily responds by striking an "innocent native" passer-by so hard that “he became an imbecile.” From the moment that inexplicable calamity occurs, the descendants of these individuals find their respective fates entwined through what’s left of the 20th century and beyond as the land around them morphs into the nation of Zambia. Sometime in the 1960s, for instance, Percy’s wealthy granddaughter, Agnes, deprived by blindness of a promising tennis career, falls in love with a brilliant black exchange student whom she accompanies back to the soon-to-be-independent Zambia he calls home. During those same years, Matha, the precocious granddaughter of the poor assault victim, is among several math-and-science prodigies recruited by the country’s Minister of Space Research to train for a mission to the moon by decade’s end. Strangest of all these progenies is Sibilla, the granddaughter of the hotel manager, who is born with streams and streams of hair that never stops growing—and apparently makes things grow out of the ground, too. The children and the children’s children of these women find themselves inexorably, absurdly, and at times tragically drawn together through the history of both Zambia and the patch of land where their ancestors first collided. Blending intimate and at times implausible events with real-life history, this first novel by Serpell—a Zambian writer who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and who's won the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story "The Sack"—enchants its readers with prose as luxuriant and flowing as Sibilla’s hair.

Comparisons with Gabriel García Márquez are inevitable and likely warranted. But this novel’s generous spirit, sensory richness, and visionary heft make it almost unique among magical realist epics.

Pub Date: March 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-90714-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2019

  • Kirkus Prize
  • Kirkus Prize
    winner

  • New York Times Bestseller

THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

Winslow's heroine isn't easy to like. But over time, she reaches into your heart and touches it deeply. So does this book.

IN WEST MILLS

This tender, exuberant, and impressively crafted debut novel spans decades of family upheaval and painful secrets in telling the story of a freethinking black woman in a tightly knit Carolina community.

Someone as widely read and as fiercely committed to moonshine and serial relationships as Azalea “Knot” Centre would fit snugly within the sophisticated confines of a major metropolis, even in the early 1940s when this saga begins. But Knot lives and teaches school in the rural hamlet of West Mills, North Carolina, and is viewed by the locals as (at best) something of a crank, a solitary eccentric gruffly determined to live life her way. Knot is in her 20s when, the same month Pearl Harbor is attacked, she discovers she's pregnant by a man who’s left town for the military. As determined as she is to go through this ordeal on her own, especially given her estrangement from her family, Knot is nonetheless besieged by the kindness of her neighbors two doors down, the aptly named Otis Lee Loving and his wife, Penelope (or “Pep,” as he calls her), who agree to find a local couple to adopt the child. That’s the kind of man Otis Lee is, somebody who arranges and fixes things for others, especially those he's closest to. And in Knot, Otis Lee finds a person who needs his help whether she admits it or not. They forge a lifelong platonic bond that can’t be shaken even when Otis Lee has to do the same thing all over again when Knot has another baby by yet another man she’s not marrying. Through Winslow’s evocative writing and expansive storytelling, the layers of Otis Lee’s past life, as troubled and heartbreaking as Knot’s, peel away to reveal how hard it has been for him to remain steadfast and strong to those within and outside his immediate family. And in the brave, hard-bitten, but deeply vulnerable Knot, Winslow has created a character as memorable and colorful as any created by Knot's favorite writer, Charles Dickens. Through more than 40 years of ups and downs, Knot and Otis Lee’s story makes you feel the enduring grace and potential redemption to be found in even the unlikeliest of extended families.

Winslow's heroine isn't easy to like. But over time, she reaches into your heart and touches it deeply. So does this book.

Pub Date: June 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63557-340-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2019

More Book Lists

The Magazine: Kirkus Reviews

Jenn Shapland reclaims a queer icon in My Autobiography of Carson McCullers.

subscribe
  • The Kirkus Star

    One of the most coveted designations in the book industry, the Kirkus Star marks books of exceptional merit.

  • The Kirkus Prize

    The Kirkus Prize is among the richest literary awards in America, awarding $50,000 in three categories annually.

    See the 2019 winners.

Great Books & News Curated For You

Be the first to read books news and see reviews, news and features in Kirkus Reviews. Get awesome content delivered to your inbox every week.

Thank you!

Looks good !! Please provide a valid email.