Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Historical fiction

More posts to come soon, honest! (Well, maybe not - I am haemorraging time at the moment, it seems).

I've just read two substantial works of historical fiction - or at least, the second is nearly finished - English Passengers, by Matthew Kneale, and Human Traces, by Sebastian Faulks. Both were bought me as presents - I doubt I'd have picked them up otherwise. However, they have both been rewarding and challenging reads.

I had always assumed that Tolkein's task, in creating an entire universe from scratch, was one of the most challenging for a novelist. However, in both these cases, the work that has been done by the author to:
a) bed their characters in a universe that is full of real (that is, not fictional) people, real locations and real events,
b) make their stories significant but
c) allow them to touch lightly enough on the world to not change history,
is quite remarkable. Both books make for disturbing reading - I would not expect to see either on GCSE reading lists in the near future.

Faulks' description of the treatment of mentally ill at the end of the 19th century is particularly powerful, and he does a great deal to try and communicate the nature of schizophrenia - both from the perspective of the sufferer, and those who are close to it.

At some stage, I'd like to talk through some of the ideas that Faulks puts forward, in the mouth of one of his principal characters, Thomas Midwinter, who judging from his reception and the perspective of the writing, I think Faulks is using as a mouthpiece for some of his own thoughts on what it means to be human. For now, it is worth noting that some very thoughtful and articulate arguments are set forth, and the ideas lie in the synthesis of different branches of knowledge, rather than through a kind of reductionist insight.