4 new historical fiction novels dominated by remarkable debut writers

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The Woman with Two Shadows

Sarah James

Sourcebooks, 400 pages, $24.99

By May 1945, Columbia University physics student Lillian Kaufman has not heard from her twin Eleanor since she left for a classified army job in Tennessee two months earlier. When a phone call from a former classmate working on-site informs her that Eleanor has disappeared, Lillian travels there and pretends to be her twin in order to uncover what happened.

Guided by the tenet that “the best science only happens when you question everything,” Lillian is indefatigable in her pursuit of the truth, a fraught path that leads her to Los Alamos and Robert Oppenheimer.

The plot is a Russian nesting doll of secrets and the narrative arc bends towards redemptive justice in this engaging debut.

Belle Greene, by Alexandra Lapierre, translated by Tina Kover, Europa Editions, 480 pages, $37.95

Belle Greene

Alexandra Lapierre, translated by Tina Kover

Europa Editions, 480 pages, $37.95

This is a convincingly-drawn portrait of trailblazing librarian Belle Marion Greener, daughter of the first Black student to graduate Harvard. A formidable late 19th century New Yorker, Belle decides with her siblings they must pass as white when their father leaves to become a diplomat in Russia. To protect their secret, the colour of their skin, they vow to have no children, say nothing, and lie by omission.

Renaming herself Belle da Costa Greene, forcing distance between herself and her African-American scholar father, she becomes a librarian at Princeton where she meets Junius Morgan, an expert on the poet Virgil — and banker J.P.’s nephew. Junius introduces Belle to his uncle who hires this impassioned, intelligent risk-taker to build his personal library. Her ascension to such a position is remarkable for a woman.

In 1909, Belle meets revered art historian Bernard Berenson, her life’s true love to whom she writes 611 letters, (letters that will be made available by the Morgan Library later in 2022). Like Belle, he has a family secret that he protects.

Impeccably-researched and richly-imagined, you will believe every word.

Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter, by Lizzie Pook, Simon and Schuster, 288 pages, $24.99

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter

By Lizzie Pook

Simon and Schuster, 288 pages, $24.99

When the Brightwells arrive in Australia from England in 1886 to begin life anew like so many outsiders in the seaside community they move to, protagonist Eliza is ten and startled by a land whose red earth makes it look “so very much like blood.”

A decade later, struggling with grief from her mother’s death, Eliza is determined to find out what has happened to her master pearler father Charles, who — unlike her brother Thomas — has not returned this time from months at sea. Secrets propel the plot while issues of addiction and identity are sensitively explored through the characters.

Vibrant sensory detail makes this late 19th century coastal setting essential to this absorbing debut.

Briefly, A Delicious Life, by Nell Stevens, Scribner Books, 304 pages, $35.99

Briefly, A Delicious Life

By Nell Stevens

Scribner Books, 304 pages, $35.99

In this fictional account of an actual journey taken by novelist George Sand, she and her children Solange and Maurice, and her lover Frédéric Chopin, alight in Mallorca in November 1838, an intended rest cure for the ailing composer. They stay at the Charterhouse, formerly home to monks and currently home to a ghost, Blanca, the narrator who died in childbirth in 1473.

Blanca observes Sand writing “as though sleep was just something that happened to other people,” and Chopin, when playing his piano preludes, as “a man you could fall in love with.”

The narrative alternates masterfully between the present in which Blanca is obsessed with Sand as a woman, wondering “What is desire without a body to have it in?” and Blanca’s past, when she was enthralled with men.

Provocative, enticing, visceral, this debut novel is emotionally true.

Janet Somerville is the author of “Yours, for Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters of Love & War 1930-1949,” available now in audio, read by Ellen Barkin.

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