Favourite Books with a Historical Backdrop

Whenever I’m book shopping, one of the many things that catches my attention is the time period in which a story is set in. I tend to like books which either the entirety or only part of the action takes place at the time of an important historical event. These are books whose fictional characters and events end up being embroiled in a real historical episode in one way or another and that can be labelled as historical fiction or not.

I categorise as historical fiction the books that not only are set in the past, but that also were written by authors who were born after the time period in which their novel unfolds. In these cases, authors don’t have a first-hand experience of the period they depicted in their novels. Books with a historical backdrop, on the other hand, can be written by authors who lived during the time period the story is set in or not. But, and more importantly for this distinction, besides depicting the manners and other details about a particular time period, these books feature an important real historical event. So, for me, a novel with a historical backdrop is not necessarily historical fiction.

After explaining how I describe books with a historical backdrop, I can now reveal which are my favourites.


The Muse by Jessie Burton

The Muse is set in two different time periods, 1936 and 1967, and it’s during the first one that an important historical event is taking place. The Spanish Revolution and Civil War advances on the background, while Olive Schloss develops feelings for Isaac Robles, a republican and socialist. But this book by Jessie Burton has much more to offer, such as insights about artists’ feelings, criticism of both racism and the unequal treatment of women.


O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis) by José Saramago

My favourite novel by José Saramago so far tells the story of Ricardo Reis, a doctor and a poet, who returns to Portugal in 1936 after a long period living in Brazil. The main character has the same name and is inspired by one of the many heteronyms created by Fernando Pessoa. In the book, Ricardo Reis arrives in Lisbon, after the death of his friend Fernando Pessoa, at the beginning of the Portuguese fascist regime. But there are also mentions to the political situation in other European countries, namely to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism.


Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement takes place during three time periods, one of them being the years when the Second World War was ravaging Europe. The story starts in 1935 when Briony, a young girl from a privileged family, is rehearsing a play. Her misinterpretation of the relationship between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie has terrible consequences.


Livro by José Luís Peixoto

This novel by the Portuguese writer José Luís Peixoto is set partly during the 1960s, a period when many people fled from Portugal to France to escape the autocratic regime, poverty and the colonial war. The tale of Adelaide and Ilídio, presented in the first part of the book, is used to illustrate the tribulations of that illegal journey and the life of hard work that expected the Portuguese in France.


A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Through a non-linear narrative covering different decades, the reader is introduced to the life of Teddy Todd, who was a bomber pilot during the Second World War. This is a novel about the complex relationships within a family mixed with questions about historical and social issues.


Do you like reading books with a historical backdrop? Which are your favourites? Tell me in the comments!


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