Winny Triswandhani (The Jakarta Post)
Wed 7 October 2020
Our anxiety from being confined to home for months and months slowly turned into anxiety over the unprecedented changes taking place in the many facets of our lives, and wondering when we can resume. life as we knew it. Our travel plans will have to wait while we hold our breath under our cloth masks whenever we come out of our home confinement.
In the meantime, I find solace and escape through historical fictions. There’s nothing quite like delving deep into history to remind ourselves of human resilience while temporarily distracting us – in a good way – from our current troubling situation. When we read stories about historical figures chatting, plotting, fighting, fussing and eventually dying, the current dire situation temporarily disappears from our minds, reminding us of the timelessness of human struggle. And, as a result, maybe once we’re done with the books, our irregular breath will slowly become calmer again.
Here are a few pages that turn to remind you that overall, our current situation is just a leap in history.
1. Robert Graves – me Claude
Robert Graves wrote the novel in 1934 as an autobiography of Claudius and his unlikely rise to become Emperor of Rome. Crippled, lame, and considered an idiot, Claudius had to literally fool around to survive the murderous internal politics and dangerous scramble for power in the most powerful house in ancient history. In Graves’ hands, the timeless novel brought to life a family worthy of Game Of Thrones inspiration. Her grandmother, Livia, easily poisons her rivals to retain her husband’s power. Her sister, Livilla, casually gets rid of her husband before being starved by her own mother. His nephew, Caligula, considers himself to be God and demands devotion as such. Meanwhile, Claudius tries to keep his nose down and conscientiously chronicle the story as the world around him catches fire.
If you like this, you will love: Follow-up Claude the god by the same author, relating his reign as emperor; August by John Williams; Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar.
2. Anne Marie Selinko – Desired
I especially like this for the weirder-than-fiction satisfying ending. This novel tells the incredible true story of how the daughter of a silk merchant in Marseille became Queen of Sweden; and it was after Napoleon Bonaparte dumped her. Imagine, you are a young girl from Marseille who has been bluntly ghosted by your fiancee and first love. Imagine if said fiancee became the most respected military figure in the world while marrying one of the most glamorous women in the country, becoming the original in history #CoupleGoals. Now imagine this happening as your own sister married her brother, turning your ex-fiancee in your in-laws. Desiree Clary could only have been immortalized in the list of poor abandoned lovers, but she ended up Queen of Sweden while Napoleon died alone in exile, her family ruined.
If you like this, you will love: that of Sandra Gulland The JosÃ©phine B trilogy for a rotating chronicle of Napoleon and JosÃ©phine
3. Isabelle Allende – House of the spirit
Set in an unnamed South American country, Isabel Allende has built a saga spanning three generations of the Trueba family centered around the hateful patriarch, Esteban Trueba. Colored by quirky magical characters including a globetrotting adventurer uncle, eccentric clairvoyant Clara and beautiful green-haired mermaid Rosa, the book has one foot in a Latin country on the verge of revolution and another in a fantasy land. The absurdities that follow the Trueba family symbolize the political position of the characters.
If you like it you will love it: Anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for his mark of magical realism and the Shadow of the wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
4. John Shors – Under a marble sky
When his wife passed away, the Emperor of Hindustan, Shah Jahan, was shattered and devoted his grief to building an unprecedented monument for his wife. This novel told the story of the development of the Taj Mahal, woven into Princess Royal Jahanara’s own story of brutal arranged marriage, murderous family rivalries, and her own forbidden love with the architect of the monument. Despite its 350 pages, the book is an easy read that also informs on issues such as the oppression of women and the Hindu-Buddha-Islam tension for 17e Hindustan century.
5. Lisa See – The snow flower and the secret fan
What makes this novel so special to me is not just the lyrical prose and exquisite detail, but the general theme that is rarely touched on in fiction: the mystery of female friendship.
From the official summary, Snow flower and the secret fan is a brilliantly realistic journey through a time of Chinese history as moving as it is sad. Lily, the daughter of a poor farming family at the age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old even”, in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she has painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women have created in order to communicate in secret, far from male influence.
Over the years, Lily and Snow Flower send messages to fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, come out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams and accomplishments. Together, they endure the agony of bound feet and reflect on their arranged marriages, their shared loneliness and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive.
If you like this, you will love: Memoirs of a geisha; Lust, prudence (the film)
6. Marie Renault – Persian boy
These days the news seems to be filled with antagonists; our folk hero turns into an anti-hero. I just want to fall in love with a perfect idol again, and Alexander is as perfect as he gets. Told through the adoring eyes of the eunuch and Alexander’s favorite lover, Mary Renault’s Alexander is a handsome, loving, and cultured conqueror with unparalleled brilliance on the battlefield who could do nothing wrong except maybe being drinking unboiled water in the midst of a war that prematurely ended his life and his world domination. This tale is worthy of its demigod, world conquering myth that has lasted more than 2000 years.
If you like this, you will love: All Alexander Mary Renault trilogy, Alexandre at the end of the world by Tom Holt
7. Hilary Mantel – Raise the bodies
With its dense dialogues and a plot that spans over 400 pages, this book is not the easiest to read. The second part of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Raise the bodies is the most captivating because it immerses readers in the most infamous chapter in the history of Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell had to build a case to allow Henry to call off his marriage to Anne Boleyn while keeping his throne and parting ways with the Pope without bloodshed. If you like the political intrigues of Card castle To Games of thrones, you’ll enjoy how Cromwell, a brilliant man from an unlikely plebeian background, continually plots against the wolves that surround the Tudor court.
If you like this you’ll love: Hilary Mantel’s Wolves Room trilogy. The autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George; The other Boleyn girl by Philippe Gregoire
Winny Triswandhani is an avid reader and observer of literature and the performing arts. She is a member of the Baca Rasa Dengar Book Club’s COVID-19 Virtual Bundle and currently a communications practitioner at a tech company.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Jakarta Post.