The English publication of the volumes of Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle coincides with a renewed interest in “auto-fiction,” also known as the autobiographical novel. While I have read and enjoyed several of these works of auto-fiction, my favorite is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, which seemed to draw on some auto-fiction elements, but also used other literary devices such as image patterning and developing character arcs, while incorporating motifs of class, politics, art, motherhood, friendship, and feminism.
Since finishing the Neapolitan series I’ve found myself wanting to read more novels that span generations, placing themselves in historical context, in which history itself (just as Ferrante’s working class post-war Italy) becomes a character. Three recent novels fit this bill, and I recommend them to anyone desiring epic historical novels that educate as well as entertain.
The first novel I recommend is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016). Shortlisted for the Booker and winner of both of Canada’s top literary awards, The Giller Prize and the Governor’s General Award, Thien’s novel spans generations of several Chinese families from before the Revolution to the present day—the nexus of the novel being the lead up to and the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. Successfully ambitious on all levels, the novel is well deserving of all its accolades.
Min Jin Lee’s breakthrough Pachinko (2017) covers a generation of a South Korean family living in Japan during the twentieth century. Although the novel, a National Book Award Finalist, is going to be made into a TV miniseries by Apple, I encourage you to read this riveting novel about the hardships Koreans faced in Japan before then.
Finally, Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2018) is an epic novel of trees and the people transformed by them. Intricately plotted—like the complex root system, this novel (currently longlisted for the Booker Prize) also spans more than a hundred years, and is my favorite novel of the year so far.
If you are looking for stories that take you out of the mundane world and instead challenge and expand your own understanding, I recommend any or all three of these powerful novels.