Historical fiction connects the past with our present and thus, helps us make sense of our lives’ trajectories in respect to the grander scheme of things. While reading history helps us comprehend past events, reading historical fiction enables us to humanize the past and the people who walked this planet before us, many moons ago. We learn to be in better sync with our humanity after reading about the countless atrocities that have destroyed the lives of our predecessors. The past is not just a series of dates and facts to be memorized. It is intermingled with our current reality and therefore needs to be studied with precision. Historical fiction demystifies the past and shows it as what it actually was. We get to learn about ordinary people living in the midst of extraordinary happenings and vice-versa. As the time machine is still a pipe dream, what better way is there to revisit the past than to pick up historical fiction? Whether you’re a beginner to this genre or have been a fan for some time now, this list of the most influential historical fiction of all time might be helpful. Keep reading to know more about what roles gender, class, and ethnicity played in our defining our present.
20 of the Most Influential Historical Fiction Books
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
In 1949 four immigrant women living in San Francisco used to come together weekly to play mahjong and talk about the ghosts of their past lives in China. They called themselves the Joy Luck Club. Their daughters felt that their mothers’ advice was not relevant to their modern American lives. But one day they would realize that they had unwittingly inherited their mothers’ legacy.
Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok
Kimberly Chang led a double life after immigrating to Brooklyn with her mother from Hong Kong. She was an excellent student during the day and a Chinatown sweatshop worker at night. While juggling familial expectations, her love for a factory boy, and the weight of poverty, Kimberly found herself having to navigate multiple worlds.
Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Ali’s perfectly fleshed-out characters take readers on a deeply psychological journey. Through the perspectives of two Bangladeshi sisters, we see the life paths of the contemporary successors of an ancient culture. Will their romantic lives fulfill them? Is marital bliss just going to be a pipe dream for them? With extreme tact, Ali has deftly explored stifling marriages, sisterly love, and the immigrant experience in London.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Marie-Laure escapes to Saint-Malo with her father to get away from the Nazis. Her reclusive uncle lives there and together they are in possession of what might be the most valuable jewel of the Museum of Natural History. Werner, who has a knack for building and fixing instruments, is enlisted to track down the resistance by using his talent. Despite all the hate around them, this novel is about how, under the direst of circumstances, people were choosing to be good to one another.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Liesel’s life changes forever when she picks up The Gravedigger’s Handbook lying by her brother’s graveside. Thus begins the story of her love for books and words. With the help of her foster father, she learns to read. Soon she starts rescuing and stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, etc. Even in the most dangerous of times, the thirst for knowledge persists.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
The year is 1843 when Grace Marks is convicted for being involved in the murders of her employer, his housekeeper, and also his mistress. Grace is serving a life sentence but claims to have no memory about this incident. Some people believe she is innocent, others believe she is either evil or insane. Captivating and bound to reel the readers in right from the start, this book has been a favorite among fans of historical fiction for a long time.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Sethe was born into enslavement and eventually escapes to Ohio. But even after 18 years, she isn’t free. She still thinks fondly of her Sweet Home, the farm where so many things disrupted her peace. Her house is being haunted by the ghost of her baby. Despite her best attempts, she can’t escape her past and it pulls her back more and more.
Memoirs Of A Geisha by Arthur Golden
Golden had sketched a world where appearances were the only thing that mattered when it came to women. A girl’s virginity was a marketable quality and could be auctioned off to whoever was willing to pay the best price. Love was thought of as an illusion and women had to appease the whims of men in order to survive.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
In 18th century Ghana, two half-sisters named Effia and Esi are born. While Effia is married off to an Englishman, Esi is living a life of imprisonment. Part of the novel deals with how Effia’s descendants cope with centuries of warfare and another part traces the lives of Esi and her successors in America. Intriguing, nuanced, and highly evocative, this novel humanizes history and throws light on everything that is often dismissed as mere side effects of the grander scheme of things.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
As London is recovering from the ravages of the Second World War, Juliet Ashton is on the lookout for the subject of her new book. Little does she know that she will find what she had been looking for in a letter from a man she has never met before. As they start exchanging letters, Juliet slowly starts getting drawn to his world. Warm and at times humorous, this book depicts how one can find love and a sense of a belonging in the most unlikely of circumstances.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
This Booker-Prize winning novel with extraordinary depth dissects the intersection of lives of four individuals at the end of World War II. Each of them is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, a nameless burned man occupying an upstairs room. The prose is lyrical and the profound effect that each character has on the other amplifies the literary splendor of this book.
A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Dickens’s canonical work is set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. The novel follows the story of the French Doctor Manette, his 18-year-long imprisonment, and his release followed by his life in London. From social anarchy to resurrection, through this novel, Dickens works his magic once again.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Achebe’s seminal work was first published in 1958 and portrays the life of Okonkwo. He is an Igbo man and a local wrestling hero living in Nigeria. The first part of the novel focuses on his family and community and the second and third sections talk about how life changes for him after Europeans colonize Nigeria. Achebe has weaved a story that connects people across borders and represents the universal human experience.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
In the April of 1942, Lale is transported to the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When it’s discovered that he speaks multiple languages, he is assigned the task of a tattooist. His duties include permanently marking the prisoners. During his imprisonment, he is forced to experience savagery and brutality to an extreme degree. A harrowing yet hopeful novel on loss and survival, this novel is also about resilience and endurance even in the darkest times.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Set in a country torn apart by violence, this book is a heartbreaking yet lovely exploration of the unlikely friendship between a rich boy and the son of his father’s servant. Hosseini has delved deep into themes like the power of reading, betrayal, redemption, and the relationship between fathers and sons. The history of Afghanistan also unfolds alongside the stories of the characters.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is an outcast even among her fellow enslaved Africans. She is quickly approaching womanhood, which inevitably means that bigger pains await her. When Caesar makes her aware of the Underground Railroad, a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels, the duo risk everything to escape from the clutches of their oppressors.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
This book is quite a ride for everyone big on historical fiction. It follows the tale of Count Alexander Rostov, a man who has never worked a day in his life. The readers get to see how he deals with being sentenced to house arrest while the tumultuous history of Russia unfolds outside his room. The humor and the rich writing style will leave the reader wanting more!
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Hetty, an enslaved woman living in Charleston, yearns for a life far away from her sad reality in the Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, was meant for greater things, but the social constraints associated with femininity have weighed her down. Kidd’s powerful novel highlights the themes of compassion, justice, women’s power, and what happens when women come together to change the world for good.
Pachinko By Min Jin Lee
In the early 1900s, Sunja falls for a man who, after impregnating her, refuses to marry her. A sickly and tender-hearted minister offers to marry her after this, which she accepts. Her decision to marry this man instead of becoming the mistress of the father of her child will set in motion a series of events that will reverberate through generations to come. This is a story of love, discovering sisterhood, and mustering the strength to be kind in the face of catastrophes.
The God Of Small Things By Arundhati Roy
Two kids are growing up in politically charged Kerala. Their family is a wreck and they pretty much have zero emotional support from anyone but each other. Their mother is lonely and treading on dangerous grounds by loving a man her society has forbidden her from loving. Marxist ideologies do little to salve the daily struggles of the common people. This book is heartwrenching and will stay with you for a long time.
Historical fiction helps us engage with the past in a more meaningful way. If you want to explore more of this genre, check out 25 Of The Best Queer Historical Fiction Books and 8 Historical Fiction YA Books About War.