'CAN THE DEAD speak?' The question often posed in Ice Road by Gillian Slovo is crucial to all historical novels, which stand or fall by how vividly past generations are brought back to life. Slovo has moved a long way from her home ground of Southern Africa with this tale of events in Leningrad, from the assassination of Kirov in 1934 and the Great Terror which followed to the midst of the appalling Nazi siege. We watch the increasing horrors unfold through the eyes of a variety of citizens such as Boris Ivanov, the apparatchik whose belief in the values of the Revolution leads him to make increasingly significant compromises, his daughter Natasha (as innocent and vulnerable as her young husband, Kolya), and Irina Davydovna, a cleaner who is one of millions of ordinary Russians whose lives are overwhelmed by events over which they have no control. Unfortunatelv,., the epic potential of the narrative is undermined by its style: short chapters told in the present tense, during which people spend a lot of time either wahng up and thinking about things or walking about, usually in the snow, remembering and reflecting on their lives. Slovo's sympathy for her cast redeems the sometimes doubly pedestrian narrative and we end up caring for their ambitions. As vivid as any individual. however, is the cold itself, bringing with it the ice which begins as a prison and ends as the Leningraders' only hope of escape.
Farewell, My Queen by Chantal Thomas belongs to the 'fly on the wall' school of historical fiction, in which cataclysmic events are recorded by an insignificant but sharp-eyed observer. This particular mouche is lectrice (or reader) to Marie Antoinette, and an uncritical admirer of the doomed queen. She describes in moment-by-moment detail, and from within Versailles, the forty-eight hours that followed the storming of the Bastille in July 1789 and ended with the abject collapse of a system which must have seemed eternal. As she says, 'We abandoned ship the moment the timbers began to creak'. Thomas knows her Versailles; she gives a vivid picture of the glorious ship that was the ancien régime, of the ebb and flow of hope and fear as it began to founder, and of that elusive moment when Dower vanishes. never to return.
From ships to trains - or rather. the railway,, that potent symbol of Victorian progress which takes centre stage in James Fleming's Thomas Gage. In 1847 our eponymous hero is a contented man. a veteran of Waterloo and a painter of independent means who lives just outside Norwich and is devoted to his two young children. But unscrupulous speculators, determined to route the North Norfolk line across his land, offer the family a day out on a train, with disastrous consequences. Thomas Gage's early contentment and subsequent decline are related with real gusto and the period detail is accurate and colourful.
As a small boy living in Porto in the final years of the eighteenth century, John Zarco Stewart, the principal narrator of Richard Zimler's Hunting Midnight , comes across an ancient book of fables and is impressed by the moral 'He that pursueth evil pursueth it to his own death'. There is no lack of evil in the lives of John and his two youthful companions, Daniel, a woodcarving orphan, and Violeta, tragic daughter of a seamstress. The plucky trio take on sadistic coachmen, vile sellers of caged birds, villainous anti-Semitic preachers and Violeta's brutal uncle. but ultimately the forces of evil overwhelm Daniel and Violeta, leaving John in a state of nervous collapse. Things pick up with the arrival of Midnight, an African Bushman who has been freed from slavery by John's father. Midnight is the noblest of noble savages: he cures John by blowing smoke in his ears and saying 'the time of the hyena is upon you'. Wise, funny, unconventional and kind, Midnight likes to go off for days on end to seek rain and lightning - exactly the kind of adult whose company a lonely child would relish. But betrayal condemns Midnight to a return to slavery. John, now an adult, goes to America to search for him. This is an epic melodrama, spanning three continents and more than twenty-five years and building up to a genuinely moving climax.
And finally, an unexpected treat: The Last Song of Dusk , a first novel by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi. This magical tale is set in an exotic early-twentieth-century India that never existed, though it should have done. When the beautiful Anuradha sings even the moon listens, and when she leaves her home town to get married all the peacocks of Udaipur come to see her off. Her cousin Nandini is even more remarkable, walking on water and consorting with panthers. The whole book sparkles with energy, and is by turns cheeky, funny and achingly sad. Reading it is like appreciating a highly skilled tightrope walker: one false move and the whole edifice of magic and invention would come crashing down, but Shanghvi is a sure-footed narrator and never falters. He is not afraid to have his characters talk of karma and dharma, kismet, love and the meaning of life, in passages of tender lyricism that make this a story to treasure. In The Last Song of Dusk the dead not only speak, they laugh and sing and weep and dance, and we are enriched by their wonderful journey.