But recently the tone of such conversations has begun to change. As students of history know, fashions ebb and flow; it’s increasingly clear that the historical novel is being embraced and reinvented.
In the 15 years before “Wolf Hall” earned Mantel her first Man Booker Prize, in 2009, only one novel set before the 20th century had been given the prize. The history of the Pulitzer is similar: In 2017, “The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead’s novel about an enslaved woman in the antebellum South, became the first fiction set before World War II to win the award in more than a decade. The book was met with the kind of critical parlance usually reserved for novels grounded in the reader’s own era: “urgent,” “timely,” “important.”
Whitehead’s novel — now a mini-series by Barry Jenkins — is all these things, and his example has started to seem less lonely. Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” (2016), which examined the slave trade and its legacy across two continents and seven generations, has as good a claim as any to being the breakout debut of the last few years. It was a historical novel recognized for using history not to hide from the “now” of America, but to confront it. Then there is George Saunders, who, after nearly two decades devoted to fiction focused on the present and the future, finally wrote “Lincoln in the Bardo” (2017), a novel about the death of President Lincoln’s young son Willie during the Civil War. “I was really afraid that the Lincoln subject would necessitate or cause the book to be a little stiff and 19th-century,” Saunders has said of the novel’s 20-year gestation. When he brought his own restlessly inventive sensibility to the historical fiction form, he was rewarded with the Booker Prize.
Jennifer Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” (2017), which follows a young girl’s coming-of-age in 1940s New York, was a National Book Award nominee and New York Times best seller. Téa Obreht’s “Inland” (2019), a reimagining of the Arizona Territory in 1893, and C. Pam Zhang’s “How Much of These Hills Is Gold” (2020), set during the California gold rush, breathed new life into the historical western. And in March, Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet” (2020), a novel conjuring Shakespeare’s England, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.
One of the most talked-about novels of this year so far is by another literary writer who has swerved into the past: “Libertie,” by Kaitlyn Greenidge, which is set in post-Civil War Brooklyn. Among prominent novelists most associated with chronicling contemporary American life, Lauren Groff comes to mind. But her next novel, “Matrix,” out in September, is set in the 12th century.