The best historical fiction of 2021
It’s been a great year for historical fiction, which makes choosing a Top 10 list even more difficult than usual. What to do? Go for personal favorites, sort them alphabetically, and want the list to be twice as long.
THE ART OF LOSING, by Alice Zeniter. Translated by Frank Wynne. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 p., $ 28.) In this award-winning French novel, a young Parisian tries to reconnect with Algeria, which shaped and silenced her paternal grandfather.
CATHEDRAL, by Ben Hopkins. (Europe, 624 p., $ 28.) An agile mesh of crisscrossing plots based on the slow but not so constant construction, over several generations, of an enormous church in medieval Alsace.
FREEDOM, by Kaitlyn Greenidge. (Algonquin, 366 p., $ 26.95.) In Reconstruction Era New York, the daughter of a black female doctor struggles to reconcile her own independence with her mother’s deeply felt calling, traveling to Haiti before reaching a difficult resolution.
THE MAGICIAN, by Colm Toibin. (Scribner, 512 pages, $ 28.) A masterful evocation of the life and times of the great German writer Thomas Mann, showcasing his relationship with his controversial family and his intensely private sexual aspirations.
MATRIX, by Lauren Groff. (Riverhead, 272 pages, $ 28.) In this novel inspired by the 12th-century poet Marie of France, an impoverished English convent is the setting for an exciting exploration of the many forms of devotion.
NORA, by Nuala O’Connor. (Harper Perennial, 496 pages, paper, $ 16.99.) A lively fictional interpretation of Nora Barnacle, the poorly educated blue-collar woman who supported one of literature’s most difficult intellectual writers, James Joyce.
THE PROPHETS, by Robert Jones Jr. (Putnam, 396 p., $ 27.) The emotional wounds of the inhabitants of a pre-war Mississippi plantation are laid bare in a whirlwind of ferociously poetic prose, driven by the dangerous bond shared by two slave men.
SEND FOR ME, by Lauren Fox. (Vintage, 272 pages, paper, $ 16.95.) A mine of letters discovered in the American Midwest reveals the agonizing experiences of a German Jewish family separated by the constant rise of Nazism.
THE SINGING FOREST, by Judith McCormack. (Bibliase, 302 p., Paper, $ 16.95.) A young Toronto lawyer today grapples with the moral calculation of war crimes as she investigates a mass murder committed by Stalin’s security police in 1930s Belarus.
TENDERNESS, by Alison MacLeod. (Bloomsbury, 640 pages, $ 29.) This ambitious mix of research, guesswork and fabrication centers around the creation and reception of DH Lawrence’s controversial novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.
Alida Becker is a former editor of the Book Review.