Women Make History: Nine Great Historical Novels by Female Authors

January 2023


In 2016, Andrew Kahn and Rebecca Onion analyzed the gender imbalance in authors of popular history books for Slate and found that roughly three-quarters of them were men. Last year, Johanna Thomas-Curr averred in The Observer that women are dominating fiction in terms of prizes and hype. For readers who are interested in both history and discovering new books by female authors, the solution is simple: explore the past through the following historical novels by women.

Many of the novels below feature real-life characters while some just recreate past epochs and their radical shifts, yet in all of them, women emerge from history’s sidelines. They fight, work, make hard decisions, and strike out to new countries or continents. But in the stories of these nine authors, history is made through private moments of love, creativity, and mourning as much as widely noted acts of bravado and defiance.

Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King

While telling the larger story of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, Maaza Mengiste immortalizes her great-grandmother Getey, who served in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army during that conflict. She volunteered herself instead of a too-young brother when the emperor demanded each family’s oldest son and won a lawsuit to get her hands on her father’s gun, which had been gifted to her husband. Intermixed with the female warriors is a character who photographs Ethiopian prisoners forced to jump off a cliff to their deaths; Mengiste snapshots their final moments with unforgettable, ekphrastic elegies. She also punctuates the narrative action with chapters voiced by a chorus, a nod to both the Greek chorus device and the Ethiopian tradition of azmariwoch, or roaming troubadours. One chorus exhorts, “Sing, daughters, of one woman and one thousand, of those multitudes who rushed like wind to free a country from poisonous beasts.”  


Miriam Toews, Women Talking

Born and raised in a Mennonite community outside of Winnipeg, Miriam Toews is intimately familiar with the strictures and, as she titled one book, the complicated kindness of such places, where even dancing, swimming, and rock music are prohibited. Based on horrific crimes that occurred between 2005 and 2009 in a Bolivian Mennonite enclave called Manitoba Colony, Women Talking presents the conversations between female adults and teenagers after they realize that they have been drugged with animal anesthetic by community members and raped over many nights. As the women can’t write—they speak only Plautdietsch, or Low German—a shunned man named August Epps records their debates about whether to stay or leave Manitoba Colony and thereby narrates the novel. But he is a witness, not a mediator, awed by the courage and agency of these women, one of whom he quietly loves. As her courage and that of the other women swells, he celebrates her “love of precision but also of mysterious rivers and secret playing, and her embrace and her kindness and her unborn child and reparation and disturbing dreams, and her love of myth, of madness . . . of rooftops and wash houses and shining eyes, eyes that shine as the story takes hold and cruelty becomes a weak flame, then is gone.”


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun

In her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of apprehending others through stereotypes—of apprehending people as “other.” She also points out that where a storyteller starts their story colors how readers will view it; start the story with Indigenous peoples’ arrows assaulting European colonists, and you invite a wild misreading of North American history. In Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie starts her story in the early 1960s, a few years before the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War, in the home of Odenigbo, a professor, his lover Olanna, and their house servant, Ugwu. Once Igbo separatists declare their city as part of Biafra, its own republic, the main characters are forced to flee. But while the evils of civil war are presented as black and white, the characters’ actions are painted in the subtlest shades of gray. Late in the novel, Olanna reflects on Ugwu’s efforts to record the stories of his people that might be lost in the chaos of war: “his writing . . . suddenly made her story . . . serve a larger purpose that she was not even sure of.” In this way, a once powerless houseboy begins assembling history, piece by piece.


Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

Olga Tokarczuk, who won the Nobel Prize in 2018, has mined Polish history and myth since her early novel, Primeval and Other Times. In the door-stopping The Books of Jacob, recently translated into English, she continues to excavate the sedimentary layers of Polish culture, and especially its ethnic past. The tale of Jacob Frank, an 18th-century Jewish mystic who cycles through various ecstasies, guises, and religious orthodoxies, challenged Polish nationalists’ fantasy of a racially homogenous past and led some of them to make death threats against Tokarczuk. As Jacob’s life is narrated through a large cast of his contemporaries, Tokarczuk approaches the realization of a “tender narrator,” a concept she explained in her Nobel Prize speech. The tender narrator would be “a new kind of narrator―a ‘fourth-person’ one, who is not merely a grammatical construct of course, but who manages to encompass the perspective of each of the characters, as well as having the capacity to step beyond the horizon of each of them, who sees more and has a wider view, and who is able to ignore time.” This multitude of viewpoints also undercuts the idea of a “true history” while the page numbers, descending to rather than ascending from page one, mock the idea of narrative progress. Tokarczuk’s fiendish delight in questioning history through the novel’s form is encapsulated in an exchange she includes near the end. One character asks another, “Is all this true?” She is answered, “Literature is a particular type of knowledge, it is . . . the perfection of imprecise forms.”


Susan Sontag, In America

No one meshed the academic and the erotic quite like Susan Sontag, and in this bestseller from 1999, she drew on both research and sensual evocation to tell the life story of Polish stage actress Helena Modjeska (renamed Maryna Zalewska in the novel). On its own, Modjeska’s life story is a stunner. She was her country’s favorite tragedienne, a countess, and an adventuress who tried and failed at an idealistic farming venture with her coterie of leading Polish creatives in 1870s California, only to restart her theatrical career, in English this time, during middle age. In America luxuriates in period details through the earthy Maryna and her love of fine things—like her high-femme “cashmere robe of peach-blossom pink, trimmed with a cascade of lace down the front and one narrow flounce around the bottom, lace ruffles on the elbow sleeves, a lace fraise at the neck”—even as the omniscient narrator, perhaps Sontag herself, maintains a cheeky, bird’s-eye view on the actress and her band of human muses, tainted by flawed motives and idealized memories. Maryna admits that “the past is the biggest country of all, and there’s a reason one gives in to the desire to set stories in the past: almost everything good seems located in the past.”


Toni Morrison, Beloved

In a recent interview, Indian scholar and literary critic Gayatri Spivak described reading as “a prayer to be haunted,” citing Beloved as a great example of a textual haunting. In writing it, Toni Morrison was inspired by the life events of Margaret Garner, a Black slave who, after fleeing a Kentucky plantation in the 1850s, killed her child to prevent her from being enslaved again. In the novel, that slain daughter, who calls herself Beloved after the sole word written on her tombstone, comes back to life and feeds on her mother, Sethe. What begins as a house-haunting—before Beloved becomes flesh, she troubles Sethe’s home for years, breaking objects and making handprints in cakes—ends as a hoarding of Sethe’s whole being.

Sethe starves and exhausts herself trying to appease her reincorporated child: “She took the best of everything—first. The best chair, the biggest piece, the prettiest plate, the brightest ribbon for her hair, and the more she took, the more Sethe began to talk, explain, describe how much she had suffered . . . None of which made the impression it was supposed to.” The daughter’s bottomless fury at being murdered by her mother can never be slaked, just as the tens of millions of people abused, raped, tortured, and killed by the institution of slavery can never be atoned for. In Beloved, a history of atrocity becomes embodied for readers.


Assia Djebar, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade

In Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, Assia Djebar conjures the female experience of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). A dense mixture of fiction and autobiography, history and myth, Fantasia, like Djebar’s collection of stories, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, peers inside the inner rooms of women, both physical and metaphorical, not in an act of voyeurism, but of attention. Told from the perspective of a young Arab girl caught between France and Algeria, this postcolonial novel accuses language of its role in making history impossible to narrate: “In writing of my childhood memories I am taken back to those bodies bereft of voices. To attempt an autobiography using French words alone is to lend oneself to the vivisector’s scalpel, revealing what lies beneath the skin.”


Barbara Quick, What Disappears

Throughout much of its history, ballet was fueled by the male gaze. So it’s a treat to read a historical novel about the Ballets Russes—the itinerant company of the early 20th century that attracted some of the era’s most dazzling dancers, choreographers, artists, and composers—written by a woman. What Disappears tracks the reunion of identical twins separated at birth, with one identifying as a Russian-Jewish seamstress and the other as a ballerina, Gentile and French. Intertwined by their shared womb and their relationships with fashion designer Paul Poiret, who was known in real life for his kimono coats, hobble skirts, and myriad affairs, the sisters not only observe but participate in the creation of wearable and performance art. Quick writes of the ballerina as she considers her ineffable bond with her twin, “It makes some sense to her that flesh and blood can be imprinted with truths that go far beyond anything describable in words. It was the truth of dance, after all—of all great art, except the work of writers.” Beautifully researched, this novel captures time, place, love, and rivalry with echoes of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels.


Min Jin Lee, Pachinko

Lee’s bestselling Pachinko is the kind of lived-in, multi-generational family saga that feels more real than a documentary. Yet its opening words declare war on the concept of the historical truth: “History has failed us, but no matter.” Following the loves and betrayals, successes and hardships of a Korean-Japanese family over eight decades, Lee depicts immigration as an act dependent on personal choices—in this case, young Sunja’s pregnancy out of wedlock forces her to move to Japan—as much as sociopolitical events. This tension between the twentieth-century’s wars on the one hand and private struggles on the other parallels that between fate and personal choices, a theme in the novel. As one character reflects, “there was indeed a pattern to it all.” But that pattern is not found in history books. It is only written on the rear window of our memories of the past.