The Next Chapter

Wendy McLeod MacKnight recommends 3 favourite works of historical fiction

The author and columnist reviews The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
, Conjure Women by Afia Atakora
 and Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O’Farrell
.
Wendy McLeod MacKnight is a New Brunwick author and columnist. (Wendy McLeod MacKnight)

Wendy McLeod MacKnight is an author based in Fredericton. The writer, known for her children's books such as The Frame-Upis a fan of historical novels for adults. 

She spoke with Shelagh Rogers about three historical novels she recently enjoyed: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue, Conjure Women by Afia Atakora and Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O'Farrell.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Pull of the Stars is a novel by Emma Donoghue. (Punch Photographic, HarperCollins Canada)

"Readers will be familiar with Donoghue because of her amazing previous novels like Room or The Wonder. This one was familiar from the very beginning, because this book is set in Dublin in 1918. It's the end of the Great War and the beginning of the last pandemic. 

Readers will be completely transfixed by what happens in this story.

"I was on page two and there's a disinfectant cart spraying the gutters and the tram — and a character is putting her pennies into a tin cup that's filled with carbolic acid to disinfect them. All I could think of was how many times I've had sanitizer sprayed on me in the last year! 

"It was very familiar and also kind of comforting, because we're not the first ones to have gone through this. Readers will be completely transfixed by what happens in this story."

Emma Donoghue can't predict the future, but her latest novel is disturbingly prescient. Set in 1918 Ireland, The Pull of the Stars follows three health-care workers at the height of the Spanish Flu pandemic. The award-winning author joined Tom Power to talk about publishing the book during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how she stays grounded in a world beset by uncertainty. 18:37

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Afia Atakora was born in the United Kingdom and raised in New Jersey, where she now lives. (Random House Trade Paperbacks, Edwin Tse)

"I've never read anything quite like this book. It's based in part on the narratives of formerly enslaved people that were gathered by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s as part of the New Deal. Atakora has taken this and she set the story in a ruined plantation after the Civil War, where formerly enslaved people are trying to work the land and make a new life in this strange new world after years of horrible circumstances. Obviously it's not that easy. 

I've never read anything quite like this book.

"The book's protagonist is a young woman named Rue, and she's the town midwife and healer. She learned her skills from her mother, who was a beloved healer and known as a 'conjure woman.' 

"At the centre of her story is a really dark secret that puts the community at risk. This story is beautifully written as well. Her language is astonishing."

Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O'Farrell

Hamnet & Judith is a novel by Maggie O'Farrell. (Murdo Macleod, Knopf Canada)

"This book is known as Hamnet outside of Canada. I love the premise of this book so much. It's got the most amazing conceit, which is that in 1596, Shakespeare's 11-year-old son Hamlet died.

She takes the scant information that she has, and she weaves this plausible and amazing story of how loss and grief can create moving art.

"Suddenly, about four or so years later, Shakespeare comes out with his most beloved and most lauded play, Hamlet. He basically gives his tragic hero a variation of his dead son's name. It would be like my father writing a book and calling it Wendy.

"Maggie O'Farrell thinks it's not a coincidence. She takes the scant information that she has, and she weaves this plausible and amazing story of how loss and grief can create moving art."

Eleanor Wachtel speaks with Maggie O’Farrell, winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel, Hamnet & Judith. 58:18

Wendy McLeod MacKnight's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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