LGBTQ characters star in four of the best new historical fiction novels

LGBTQ characters star in four of the best new historical fiction novels

The Cape Doctor

By E.J. Levy

Little, Brown, 352 pages, $35.00

This resplendent debut novel, inspired by the life and work of trans icon Dr. James Miranda Barry, is sure to create lively discussion about the legacy of this prominent early 19th century physician.

In Levy’s telling, narrator Dr. Jonathan Mirandus Perry receives a midwifery text as a gift from his mentor. He finds the illustrations enrapturing. Although presenting himself as male is essential to be able to financially provide for his mother and sister, Perry soon appreciates the freedom of being male, shrugging off “sweet disposition like a cloak” and revelling in the “greatest liberty of men: not to have to please.”

Perry serves in several posts as a physician for the British Army, improving living conditions for prisoners and lepers. He performs the first Caesarian in Africa. In Cape Town, he works for the governor’s household and their affair leads to a secret pregnancy and rumours of a potentially criminal bond. Perry learns that “love’s the wound we don’t recover from.”

Sumptuous careful prose, particularly affecting about Perry’s vocation.

BK-HISTORICALFICTION-AUG28 The Hollywood Spy, by Susan Elia Macneal, Bantam, 368 pages, $36.00

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The Hollywood Spy

By Susan Elia Macneal

Bantam, 368 pages, $36.00

The 10th historical mystery about intelligent, intrepid M.I.T.-educated Maggie Hope, one-time secretary to Winston Churchill and trailblazing S.O.E. British spy, opens in Los Angeles in July 1943. The streets are full of racial tension while Nazi groups foment in respectable neighbourhoods. It is as dark in America as it is on the bombed-out London streets Maggie calls home.

With a nod to the opening sequence of “Sunset Boulevard,” a corpse is found floating face down in a pool. It’s a woman, Gloria Hutton, fiancée to RAF pilot John Sterling and she’s at the storied Garden of Allah where residents Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley trade quips in jollier times.

Maggie shares a room at the Chateau Marmont with her friend Sarah Sanderson, a ballet dancer who is in town working on a film with George Balanchine. A series of suspicious deaths linked to the sedition trials of “homegrown American Nazis” leads Maggie to uncover a fascist cell as well as a brave clandestine group of resistance operatives, whose essential work puts their lives at risk.

An immersive page-turner.

BK-HISTORICALFICTION-AUG28 Tuscan Daughter, by Lisa Rochon, Harper Avenue, 416 pages, $24.99

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Tuscan Daughter

By Lisa Rochon

Harper Avenue, 416 pages, $24.99

Toronto-based Rochon’s glorious debut novel is set in Tuscany between 1500-1505, halcyon years in which Michelangelo is carving “David” out of a prized block of Carrara marble and da Vinci is painting his enigmatic “Mona Lisa.”

After her father is killed and her mother disappears, protagonist Beatrice struggles living alone in Settignano, outside Florence. Daily she walks several miles barefoot to sell her olive oil to artists working in studios in dirt lanes behind the cathedral. Recently returned Leonardo da Vinci drizzles Beatrice’s oil on rosemary bread and delights, “it’s good to be home.”

Restricted from an artist’s apprenticeship by poverty and gender, Beatrice draws in secret on the city’s stone walls, in charcoal; on one “a raging angel, its wings hunched up as if a falcon preparing to land, its heart pierced with the long stem of a peacock feather.” Through da Vinci’s kindness Beatrice befriends Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo and observes how the artist dares to paint a woman “looking directly out into the world, not meekly in profile.”

Impeccably researched and rife with lush detail and life’s wisdom.

BK-HISTORICALFICTION-AUG28 The Perfume Thief, by Timothy Schaffert, Doubleday, 368 pages, $36.00

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The Perfume Thief

By Timothy Schaffert

Doubleday, 368 pages, $36.00

It’s 1941, Paris is under Nazi occupation, and 72-year-old, queer-identifying Clementine, a reformed con artist, has a scent business bottling favourite extracts for the cabaret performers at Madame Boulette’s bordello. She confesses, “I’ve lived the life of a thief, but I’ve only ever taken from people who didn’t need what I took.”

Seeking nostalgia and solace, the queer community alight at Clem’s shop, asking for bespoke scents that will remind them of their grandmother’s kitchen or “the strong coffee and stout brandy in that café that winter.” She confesses that her business is not only about chemistry, but also about psychology. For the perfume to work, her customers need to believe what she tells them. For singer Day Shabbilé, who Clem creates perfumes inspired by memories of her lovers, like the composer who smelled of “varnish of a violin, phlox, the smoke of a blown candle.”

Richly imagined, exquisitely written, this tale enthralls on every page.

Janet Somerville is the author of “Yours, for Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters of Love & War 1930-1949,” available now in audio, read by Ellen Barkin.


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