This week’s topic for Non Fiction November is hosted by Renee over at What’s NonFiction?
Week 4: (Nov. 19 to 23) – Reads Like Fiction (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction): Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?
I got a little confused this week and thought the topic was on fiction that takes inspiration from fact. Which it clearly isn’t. But I’d written the post so I figured I’d post anyway as anyone who has read my blog for any length of time will know that I am a BIG fan of fictionalised works of real life events.
My fascination with the genre is in the melding of straight, factual journalism and the imagination of the author. Like a journalist, these stories have the facts; the who, where and what and show us the surface of the story. But a fictionalised telling has the luxury of time and of research and can take the reader beyond the facts, developing characters, creating consciousness and positing theories. Non-fiction becomes novel. Tom Wolfe in his book The New Journalism said
It was in the nature of a discovery. This discovery, modest at first, humble, in fact, deferential, you might say, was that it just might be possible to write journalism that would…read like a novel. Like a novel, if you get the picture. This was the sincerest form of homage to The Novel and to those greats, the novelists, of course.
The easy assumption would be that In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, arguably the most famous of this style of writing, was the gateway to my interest, but the first book I read in this genre was The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, which he classed as ‘A True Life Novel’.
As part of Non Fiction November, here is a list of some of my favourite ‘true life novels’ – a few of which would probably make my Top Ten books of all time.
Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates
At this point you all know my feelings about Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates fictional retelling of the life of Marilyn Monroe, so I thought I would include another of her books based in fact – Black Water. Black Water tells the story of the infamous Chappaquiddick incident where Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a single-car accident that led to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. In this powerful novella, Kopechne becomes Kelly, a young, idealistic woman who falls for the Senator. Told from her point of view, Black Water is a blistering examination of the imbalance of power and abuses that can lead to.
Libra by Don DeLillo
DeLillo often brings factual events and people into his work, particularly in the epic Underworld but for me, Libra is his masterpiece. Following the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, from troubled adolescent to agent of history, Libra is a gripping blend of fact and fiction exploring the dark events of 1960s America and the fractured personality that opened a wound in the American psyche.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
I’m not a massive fan of historical fiction, but Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall is a dazzling recreation of the life of Thomas Cromwell – Henry VIIs right-hand-man and fixer. Lambasted by historian David Starkey as ‘a deliberate perversion of fact’, Mantel insisted that her telling is a subjective one, as is any historians. Regardless of the novel’s authenticity, this is a page-turning wonder of a book, bringing a fresh urgency to the lives of the Tudor monarchs.
Resurrection Men by Eoin McNamee
Eoin McNamee received death threats following the publication of Resurrection Men and it is hard to believe that it is 20 years since his fictional retelling of the crimes of the Shankill Butchers in Northern Ireland caused such a stir. Resurrection Men centres around the fictional Victor Kelly (based loosly on killer Lenny Murphy), a violent and ruthless killer, picking his Catholic targets from the street at random and creating a terror and a mythology in the streets of Belfast. McNamee’s novel is cinematic in scope and beautifully written despite the brutal subject matter.
The Executioners Song by Norman Mailer
The book that started my love of this genre, you can read a more detailed post about why I admire Norman Mailer’s fictionalised account of the life and death of Gary Gilmore, who was executed in 1977 in Utah for committing two murders.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Burial Rites was the first book I ever reviewed on this blog, so it is a fitting inclusion in this list. Set in 1830 the novel explores the final year in the life of the last woman to be publicly executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. In 1829, three people in a remote farmstead are convicted of the murder of their employer, beaten and stabbed to death. Murder, remote communities and isolated landscapes are fertile material for a novel which, as Hannah Kent explains in her author’s note, aims ‘to supply a more ambiguous portrayal’ of Agnes, for whom the author clearly has deep and sympathetic knowledge. Kent mines the final months of Agnes’ existence from historical records and creates a swirling, claustrophobic and dark tale that resurrects her heroine with skill and poignancy.
Little Deaths by Emma Flint
Set in 1960s suburban New York, Little Deaths re-tells the horrifying true story of Ruth Malone, a woman accused of killing her two children. Flint cleverly evokes an era and a neighborhood where to be different or to be worthy of attention was seen as a failing. The book mixes sex, murder, obsession and a femme fatale – all the right ingredients for a noir drenched tale. This is true crime with a distinctly modern feminist slant which leaves the question of whether or not Ruth Malone was guilty tantalizingly open.
Alma Cogan by Gordon Burn
In Gordon Burn’s audacious debut novel, he takes Britain’s biggest selling vocalist of the 1950s and turns her story into an exploration of celebrity and murder. Mixing fictional characters with real life stars such as John Lennon and Doris Day, Burn imagines a life for Alma Cogan if she had lived past her death in 1966 and on into obscurity. Alongside Alma’s life is the search for the body of Keith Bennett, victim of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and Burn adeptly explores the dark underside of fame and the public’s voracious need to know everything about anyone in the public eye.
The Damned United by David Peace
Anyone who knows me will know I’m not a football fan, but I this fictionalised account of the 44 days that football legend Brian Clough spent as manager of Leeds United contains all the tragedy, farce, humour and drama that you could want from any novel. The football becomes almost irrelevant as Peace takes the reader inside the mind of Clough – a task that Peace claimed was ‘more honest than most biographers’.
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41 …
Lizzie Borden has entered into American mythology due to her involvement in the murders of her father and step mother over 100 years ago, for which she was arrested, tried and acquitted. The fact that the murderer was never found has meant that a trace of blame has always lingered over Borden and has created an aura of fascination around the case ever since. Schmidt is excellent at depicting the simmering family resentments within the Borden household without going into too much detailed back story.
Like Joyce Carol Oates in Blonde, Sarah Schmidt has decided on the facts of the case and written the book to that effect – a choice that is satisfying for a reader, but loses some ambiguity that exists within the legend of Lizzie Borden.
Underworld by Don DeLillo on too many people and events to mention!
My Sister My Love by Joyce Carol Oates on Jon Benet Ramsay
Calf by Andrea Kleine on John Hinkley and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan
Room by Emma Donoghue which is loosely based on the Josef Fritzl kidnapping case
Is this a genre you like? And if so, have you read any of these?
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!