Historical Fiction Across Time and Space

Art by Sanle Yan

Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood 

Set in Ancient Greece, Daughters of Sparta follows sisters Helen and Klytemnestra of Sparta. Separated through their political marriages to brothers Menelaos and Agamemnon, the novel chronicles a tragedy imbued with equal parts love and violence. After Helen is whisked away to Troy with its prince Paris, a thousand ships set sail to steal her back at significant personal cost to Klytemnestra. For fans of Greek mythology and Homer’s Iliad, Daughters of Sparta gives voice to the two women central to the tale and what it means to be caught in the crossfires of the cruel ambition of men.


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi 

The novel follows the descendants of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, born in different villages in Ghana during the 1700s. Effia is married to an Englishman and lives in the Cape Coast Castle. Her sister, Esi, is imprisoned in the castle’s dungeons to be sold into the slave trade. One family line lives in freedom yet is haunted by the guilt of its role in enslaving its own people. The other is forsaken to a life in shackles for generations. Each chapter of the novel follows a different descendant from both family lines, positioned against the backdrop of historical movements and events. Despite the changing perspectives, characterisation is the novel’s greatest strength. From the conflict between the Fante and Asante nations in Ghana to plantations of the American South, the book traverses Ghanaian and American history. This is an incredibly emotional story that effortlessly explores the generational impact of colonisation and slavery on family, bloodline, and nation.


Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

Beginning in 1866, Maria is a cigar-roller in a factory living through political unrest and the threat of revolution in Cuba. In 2014, Jeanette, the daughter of a Cuban immigrant, struggles with substance abuse. After ICE detains her neighbour, she takes in her young daughter. Carmen, Jeanette’s mother, has a complicated relationship with her own mother stemming from a traumatic event she witnessed as a child. Following the women of one family through several generations, from 1866 to 2019, this novel explores the complexity of mother-daughter relationships and how they intersect with colonialism, patriarchy, race, and immigration. 


The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams 

The Dictionary of Lost Words is written by Australian author Pip Williams and is set in England from the 1880s to the Great War. Following the protagonist, Esme, from childhood to adulthood, the novel centres around the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Esme spends most of her childhood under a table in the Scriptorium, where James Murray and his lexicographers work. She begins collecting words used by and about women that the lexicographers have discarded. These words form the creation of her own dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words. This novel illuminates the erasure of women and their experiences in lexicography. It is an incredibly unique and gripping read incorporating historical events like the women’s suffrage movement. 


The Color Purple by Alice Walker 

Walker’s epistolary novel is split between rural Georgia in the early 1900s and an unnamed African nation. When Celie is forced to marry “Mr.” and care for his children, her younger sister Nettie travels to Africa as a missionary for the Olinka tribe. The two sisters write to each other, hoping they may be reunited one day. The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, the novel is a shocking and emotional examination of race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion. It refuses to shy away from the domestic violence and sexual abuse experienced by black women and gives voice to their pain, resilience and courage. 


Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko is an epic historical fiction novel that spans generations and decades. It begins in the early 1900s during the Japanese occupation of Korea, following Sunja, a teenage girl who falls pregnant after being seduced by a wealthy older married man. She accepts an offer of marriage from a sickly minister, Isak, who takes pity on her. Together, they travel to Japan. The novel follows the trials faced by the family as they experience poverty, discrimination, and the Second World War. The pachinko parlours serve as a powerful metaphor throughout the novel, depicting the unpredictability of life. This is a story of love and sacrifice in the face of struggle and hardship. 


The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng 

Longlisted for the 2023 Man Booker Prize, The House of Doors is set on the Straits Settlement of Penang in 1921. It is based on W. Somerset Maugham and reimagines the inspiration behind his 1926 short story “The Letter”. Maugham, with his secretary and lover Gerald, visits his old friend Robert Hamlyn and his wife Lesley in Penang. The story consists of two strands that Lesley gradually recounts to Maugham: her connection to Chinese revolutionary Dr Sun Yat Set and the 1911 murder trial of Ethel Proudlock. As Maugham contemplates writing on what Lesley has told him, the novel reckons with a question that all writers must face: who has the right to tell a story. The book is a masterful exploration of British colonialism, queer and feminine identity, and the power of storytelling.


Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

This 120-page novella is small but mighty. Short-listed for the 2022 Man Booker Prize, the story is set in a small Irish town in 1985. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill, a coal merchant, makes a horrific and shocking discovery. Throughout her novella, Keegan explores the mistreatment of women in the Magdalene Laundries, the church’s role in this systemic abuse of power and the silent complicitness of all those who knew the truth. 


I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys 

Ruta Sepetys’ I Must Betray You is a historical fiction young adult novel set in 1989 communist Romania in the last few months of the reign of dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. The protagonist, Cristian Florescu, is compelled to become an informant for the government and obtain information on a family of American diplomats in exchange for treatment for his grandfather, who is ill with leukaemia. Given the code name ‘Oscar’, Cristian struggles with feelings of loyalty and duty as he attempts to survive under an oppressive regime. The novel paints a stark picture of 1980s Romania and its climate of government surveillance.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.