The Historical Imagination: In His Occasional Round Up of Recent Historical Fiction Jerome De Groot Considers a Wide Range of Books Demonstrating the Range and Vitality of the Genre. Fiction about the Past, It Seems, Has an Amazing Capacity to Explore and Investigate the Diversity of History

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Lynn Shepherd's Murder at Mansfield Park (Beautiful Books, 7.99 [pounds sterling]) demonstrates the astonishing fecundity of Jane Austen's work and the ways in which it is continually being transformed, continued and evolved. After the zombies, the next mash-up direction seems to be Agatha Christie, as Shepherd grafts a country-house murder mystery onto the original novel. There is some method to this seeming madness--recent critics have pointed out that Fanny Price is a hard heroine to like and here she becomes villainess and victim--Shepherd has a lot of fun with the setting, the characters and the dialogue. It is a romp, nicely iconoclastic while staying true to Austen's sharpness and acuity.

Julia Stuart's curious Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo (HarperCollins, 7.99 [pounds sterling]) is charmingly off-kilter, if quite peculiar. The novel is rather whimsical and light, but with a melancholy at its heart. Not really a historical novel, more a heritage fiction, Balthazar Jones is about an elderly Beefeater at the Tower of London. Stuart communicates much of the Tower's history through the eclectic collection of characters that live in the fortress and the novel is a kind of celebration of the eccentricities of Englishness

as well as an investigation of grief.

In brutal contrast, Alamein (HarperCollins, 17.99 [pounds sterling]) is lain Gale's account of what he clearly sees as a key battle of the Second World War. A monumental, 11-day conflict that encompassed a huge area and thousands of troops, planes, artillery and tanks, the battle of Alamein would seem to resist being easily recounted in fiction. Gale does not attempt to give a straightforward account, but rather focuses his story through the experiences of a range of figures, from Rommel and Montgomery strategising furiously, to German tank commanders and Australian infantrymen fighting on the ground. The novel reflects the diversity of the battle and through its fragmented narrative communicates something of the scale, scope and confusion--as well as the bravery, sacrifice and horror--of the conflict. It is pretty unrelenting and at times really quite confusing. While it succeeds as an exemplary account of battle, Gales book cannot really take the time to develop character or engage with anything other than the minutiae of warfare.

Another military history novel is John Sherman's A Friendly Little War (Wild Wind Books, 12 [pounds sterling]), which meticulously explores relatively unknown events related to the American Civil War. His focus is on the ways in which Europe used the opportunity of the war, fomenting nationalism in Ireland and manipulating politics and economics in Mexico. …


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