The problem with historical fiction

The Last Days of Dogtown

By Anita Diamant

There is a certain breed of historical fiction that is content to point our perspective to a finite period and place, to describe to us the cups and saucers on the table, the agony of winter and the trappings of gender. Outside of this history lesson it tells us nothing. In short, it fails to be good art because it fails to be universal. It is too focused on that one place at that one time. I have no love for novels like these.

Diamant’s book is of this ilk, so I could not even finish it. I know that not finishing a novel is one of the greatest offences a reader can commit against a writer. But it is never a decision I take lightly; in this case, it was unavoidable. Having bought this novel during a visit to Cape Ann, a region of Massachusetts, USA, that captivated my imagination, I was very excited to begin. The author promised to take me into a dying town a few hundred years ago, which she did. But I also expected a story that could move my heart and make me think about human relationships.

Instead, I got overworked historical fiction must-haves: the black slave whose deep voice scares the white characters, the lonely single woman, the cheeky boy, the brothel, the tyrannical old wench. Historical novelists can certainly get away with employing these clichés – they’re clichés because they’re true and one can’t rewrite history too much – but this book reads less like a novel than a creative history book. Fair enough, we learn a little about the last days of Dogtown. We learn nothing of the human heart – and that’s what disappointed me. I thought that a dying village was a perfect canvas for this.

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