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They're History

Historical fiction varies from campy romance to character studies with imaginative insights more exact than fact. Three new novels test the genre's limits.

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"Don't you know what's going on in the world?" a character asks his closest friend, in H. M. van den Brink's novel of pre-World War II Holland. Given that it's 1939, the friend is Jewish, and Hitler lives just a country or two away, it's a bit shocking that the answer is "no." But then, On the Water is about the problem that all historical fiction must, at some level, deal with: what people in the past knew and what they didn't (or didn't want to) know about what was happening around them, and how our present-day hindsight gives their knowledge or ignorance a tragic, or pathetic, meaning. That problem is also at the heart of Rachel Seiffert's subtle but powerful debut, The Dark Room, which also uses World War II -- although seen from the aggressors' point of view, rather than the victims' -- to explore the troubling tension between history and memory. These two novels of the twentieth century and its obsessions couldn't be more different from Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks's colorful tale of seventeenth-century England -- and not just because they're about different eras, either. Still, all three suggest what makes historical fiction good and what it's good for.

The Dark Room is by far the most substantial and successful book of the three. It consists of three stories, all set in Germany, each longer and more morally complex in its treatment of the issues of memory, guilt, and witness than the one before. "Helmut," set during the war, concerns a young photographer who, while photographing the city's main train terminal, comes to realize that "Berlin is slowly losing people." In "Lore," set in 1945, a teenage girl tries to flee with her siblings to their grandmother's house in Hamburg; en route, she can't help noticing newspaper accounts about the concentration camps -- even as she tries to hide evidence of her parents' activities as party members. "Micha," set in the present, confronts the German legacy of guilt most directly: In this last story, a young, liberal German college professor learns that his grandfather was an S.S. officer and tries to learn just what his beloved "Opa" did during the war, and to whom.

Seiffert may be only 30, but she's already too sophisticated a writer to bang her readers over the head with the obvious. We know why Berlin's losing people, and what Lore's parents and Micha's grandfather were doing, and that's enough for this author, who prefers to explore the moral, rather than purely historical, questions that her tales raise. The Dark Room examines these questions with both dramatic starkness ("If Himmler was your Opa, he wouldn't be ugly") and disquieting indirection. It's not every first novelist who has the wisdom to see that in some cases there is "no guilt and no forgiveness either."

Gratifyingly, the moral imagination at work in this novel encompasses much more than the Germans' guilt. Seiffert uses her stories to suggest the conflicts of the writers and artists who attempt, as she does, to grapple with the Holocaust. Helmut worries that his photographs of a roundup of a Gypsy family "convey none of the chaos and cruelty" of the event itself; Micha, obsessively studying Holocaust books, is distressed that "his notes are impassive; words on a page." Seiffert needn't worry: For all its clipped prose and impassive gaze, The Dark Room wrenchingly conveys the tortured moral legacy of the war. It's much more than mere words on a page.

On the Water shares The Dark Room's obsessions with memory and guilt, although a lot less happens in it. In the idyllic days of the summer of 1939, Anton, a working-class teenager in Amsterdam, gets paired with David, a bourgeois Jewish boy, on a rowing team; as they practice together, Anton becomes intensely attached to his friend in a way that (like everything else) is apparent to everyone but himself. Scenes of this prewar idyll are dreamily interwoven with images of Anton, at the end of the war, standing by the ruined boathouse, remembering the now-lost David.

Like light on water, this novel can be diffuse and elusive -- although the writing's so lovely you don't really mind. (The prow of a scull trembles "as if dreaming . . . of real speed.") But On the Water has a cumulative power, ultimately suggesting how the innocent can be guilty too -- how just living your life can make you blind to bigger concerns until it's too late. Historical fiction has always been a bastard genre, stranded between "pure" fiction, which we like to think of as wholly imaginative, and history, which we like to think offers no room for inventiveness or mere opinion. Books like Van den Brink's and Seiffert's remind you that the best historical novels use the ample resources of fiction to illustrate not what the past looked like but what it might have meant.

You certainly know what seventeenth-century rural England looked and sounded like by the time you're through with Geraldine Brooks's novel of a country village's battle with bubonic plague. Narrated by a young peasant named Anna Frith, Year of Wonders is peopled by snooty aristocrats, fiery preachers, and superstitious peasants; its characters use thee and thou; and Anna herself can't resist words like "fair-clemmed" and "stooks." Brooks, a war correspondent and the author of two works of nonfiction, has obviously done her homework, and her first novel zips along entertainingly, filled with color, incident, and detail.

But Year of Wonders makes you wonder whether good historical fiction is just a matter of getting the details right -- something that Brooks, ever the conscientious journalist, does well. Year of Wonders walks the Restoration walk and talks the Restoration talk, but the seventeenth-century stuff is, in the end, just drag. Anna's "issues" will, if anything, seem more familiar to those who read People than to those who read Pepys. She's a survivor of child abuse, she ruefully realizes that her husband isn't worried about her orgasms, she boldly rejects religious explanations of the plague for scientific ones, and she abandons a handsome, difficult lover for a life of adventure that eventually brings her to Africa, where she enjoys a flourishing career as, essentially, a gynecologist (and where she nobly worries about the ill-treatment of African slaves).

Let's see: a strong-willed, democratic, politically liberal, freethinking, ambitious, career-oriented survivor of an unsatisfying marriage who leaves her weak men behind to make a name for herself. Anna may live during the reign of Charles II, but she reminds you of no one so much as Queen Hillary. Really good historical fiction sheds light on the past -- even if that light is oblique, watery, flickering. That's what you get in Seiffert's and Van den Brink's books. But the only century illuminated by Brooks's novel is our own. Good fiction? By all means. Serious historical fiction? Thou must be kidding.

The Dark Room
By Rachel Seiffert.
Pantheon; 278 pages; $24.
On the Water
By H. M. van den Brink. Grove Press; 134 pages; $21.
Year of Wonders
By Geraldine Brooks.
Viking; 308 pages; $24.95.


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