The Best Historical Fiction of 2020

Whittling down a best-books list can be uncomfortably arbitrary. So let’s just say that the titles presented below, in alphabetical order, were “the best” at capturing my attention in this most distracting of years.

THE ABSTAINER, by Ian McGuire. (Random House, 320 pp., $27.) Manchester, England, in the mid-1860s is gripped by political violence that Head Constable James O’Connor may be ill equipped to handle. An Irishman, he must cope with suspicious British colleagues, rebellious fellow countrymen and his own past fondness for the bottle. And then an assassin arrives, all the way from America.

BLACK BOTTOM SAINTS, by Alice Randall. (Amistad, 368 pp., $26.99.) A rambunctious portrait of the “caramel Camelot” that was Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood from the late 1930s to the late 1960s. Narrated by a fictional version of the real-life impresario Ziggy Johnson, it’s a series of mini-biographies inspired by the Roman Catholic book of saints and a Black bartender’s classic collection of cocktails.

THE BLIND LIGHT, by Stuart Evers. (Norton, 544 pp., $27.95.) A portrait of two families disastrously linked by the fear that gripped post-World War II British society: the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Drummond Moore and James Carter come from radically different backgrounds, but their service together on a civil defense training base known as Doom Town will warp their relationship for decades to come.

THE COLD MILLIONS, by Jess Walter. (Harper, 352 pp., $28.99.) Walter sends two fictional brothers into the free speech riots that seized Spokane, Wash., in the early years of the last century. A labor struggle pitting workers against the powers that be, this confrontation also provided a platform for a charismatic historical figure named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

CONJURE WOMEN, by Afia Atakora. (Random House, 416 pp., $27.) Ricocheting between the 1850s and the 1860s, this first novel shows how the legacy of bondage played out on an isolated plantation after the abolition of slavery. Its heroine is a midwife and healer adept at hoodoo, the “Black folks’ currency” of the antebellum South.

THE EVERLASTING, by Katy Simpson Smith. (Harper, 352 pp., $28.99.) An ambitious novel that peels back the layers of history, moving from modern-day Rome to the times of the Medicis and the Romans, with an intermediate stop among some ninth-century monks. The link is a possible religious relic. Also timeless questions about what constitutes a “good” life.

HAMNET, by Maggie O’Farrell. (Knopf, 305 pp., $26.95.) Little is known about Shakespeare’s marriage, but this allows O’Farrell to place his wife at the center of an eloquent novel about motherhood, passion and almost unbearable grief. Was the death of the family’s only son, 11-year-old Hamnet, the inspiration for one of literature’s greatest plays?

THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT, by Hilary Mantel. (Holt, 757 pp., $30.) The final volume of Mantel’s trilogy will end as we knew it would, with the execution of Thomas Cromwell on the order of his sovereign, Henry VIII. But still we read intently onward, ensnared by her depiction of the personalities and politics of Tudor England.

STILL LIFE, by Zoë Wicomb. (New Press, 304 pp., $25.99.) A present-day writer attempts to tell the story of a relic of South African colonialism, the 19th-century poet Thomas Pringle. She’s aided by two figures from his past — the Motswana boy he adopted and the formerly enslaved Caribbean woman whose memoir he published — and, for good measure, the time traveler from Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” Sir Nicholas Green.

TYLL, by Daniel Kehlmann. Translated by Ross Benjamin. (Pantheon, 342 pp., $26.95.) A jaunty trickster hero emerges from the mists of German mythology, bringing us vivid views of 17th-century Central Europe during the chaos of the Thirty Years’ War. As a traveling entertainer, Tyll is witness to the superstition and brutality of his era — and to the freedom that can be achieved through art.

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