Hilary Mantel’s 5 Favorite Historical Fictions


Things Fall Apart (1958), by Chinua Achebe

A classic of African writing and a book of world stature, Chinua Achebe’s novel is set in a Nigerian village in the 1890s, where traditional society and the individual’s role falters in the face of modern and western influence. It is a gripping human story, universal in its appeal.

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights.


The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), by J.G. Farrell.

An idiosyncratic masterpiece, wise and richly comic, set in India in 1857 in a besieged town garrisoned by the British. Original and endlessly entertaining, it repays repeated readings.

Anyone who has never before visited Krishnapur, and who approaches from the east, is likely to think he has reached the end of his journey a few miles sooner than he expected. While still some distance from Krishnapur he begins to ascend a shallow ridge. From here he will see what appears to be a town in the heat-distorted distance. He will see the white glitter of walls and roofs and a handsome grove of trees, perhaps even the dome of what might be a temple. Round about there will be the unending plain still, exactly as it has been for many miles back, a dreary ocean of bald earth, in the immensity of which an occasional field of sugar cane or mustard is utterly lost.


The Year of the French, (1979), by Thomas Flanagan.

A novel on the grand scale, combining multiple narratives to chronicle the failed and tragic Irish Rebellion of 1798. Inspiring and almost heart-breaking.

MacCarthy was light-headed that night when he set out from Judy Conlon’s cabin in the Acres of Killala. Not drunk at all, but light-headed. He carried with him an inch or two of whiskey, tight-corked in a flask of green glass, and the image which had badgered him for a week. Moonlight falling on a hard, flat surface, scythe or sword or stone or spade. It was not an image from which a poem would unwind itself, but it could be hung as a glittering, appropriate ornament upon a poem already shaped. Problems of the craft.


Losing Nelson (1999), by Barry Unsworth

This is a novel about the perils of hero-worship. A modern-day would-be biographer disintegrates psychologically as his research faces him with unpalatable truths about the great naval warrior of the eighteenth century.

I had a bad fight that morning. I wouldn’t have left the house at all on such a special day if the man at Seldon’s hadn’t phoned to say they had a piece I might be interested in. It was an oval plate, bone china, frilled at the edges, slightly curved at the sides, pale cream in colour, with a central medallion enclosing his profile in dark blue. There was an inscription of the same colour in slightly worn cursive, running round the upper half of the medallion: Hero of the Nile. They had used the De Vaere profile made for Wedgwood in the summer of 1798. Nothing very remarkable about it. But of course I agreed to buy it. It bore his image. It was seldom indeed I could resist that.


Farewell, My Queen (2004), by Chantal Thomas

A delicate, precisely-researched reconstruction of Marie Antoinette’s final days at Versailles, as the forces of revolution gather and the world stands on the brink of transformation.

My name is Agatha-Sidonie Laborde. It is a name rarely spoken, almost a secret. I live in the émigré quarter of Vienna in an apartment on Grashofgasse. Its windows open above a paved inner courtyard surrounded at ground level by a number of shops: a secondhand bookshop, a wig maker’s, a small printshop, a tailor’s. There is also a spice-seller’s stall, just at the foot of my apartment building. A lively neighborhood, but not too noisy. In the summertime, along with Eastern aromas, there are always notes of music floating in the air. The rosebushes winding their way up the building fronts add a garden charm to this little corner of Vienna. But in the dead of winter, which is what we have at present, the rosebushes have ceased to bloom and the sounds of life from the shops no longer reach me. For me, in a general way, the sounds of life are well and truly stilled, whatever the season. It’s as though the terrible winter all around me, this unending snow and the feeling it gives of being buried, were a symptom of my advanced age, the outward sign of that deeper, permanent winder creeping over me.

Join the Discussion