Historical fiction is a genre that uses fictional characters in a retelling of a historical time, or setting. The stories can also incorporate historical figures from the time period interacting with the fictional cast to create a sense of history alongside the narrative. In Australia, historical fiction, the narratives centre around colonial times, times of war, the Great Depression, or using one of these events as a backdrop to a family story and mystery. Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair series deserves another mention, as she uses the turmoil of the 1930s, as a backdrop to the crimes. Her characters also interact with historical figures of the time such as: Kingsford-Smith, Nancy Wake and Eric Campbell. In a series such as this, the combination creates interesting storylines, and each novel is linked together with the events that are unfolding. In doing so, the link between the characters, the crimes and the historical outcomes that Rowland and his friends must inevitably face is stronger and creates a stronger storyline.
Historical novels about the Australian experience of war often feature the home front. The Forgotten Pearl by Belinda Murrell begins in the present. However, it is the story of a grandmother telling her granddaughter about her wartime experiences when the Japanese bombed Darwin just days after bombing Pearl Harbour, and then fleeing to Sydney, only to have Sydney Harbour attacked. Jackie French has used the backdrop of colonial history, the nineteenth century, World War One, World War Two and The Great Depression to tell a variety of stories. The Matilda Saga follows a seventy year story, starting with A Waltz for Matilda set in 1894, followed by The Girl From Snowy River in World War One, The Road to Gundagai in The Great Depression, To Love a Sunburnt Country and the imminent Japanese invasion of the Second World War culminating in The Ghost by the Billabong and the Vietnam War, bringing the story full circle, with Matilda as a key character who links each story and all the characters together. This kind of saga, spanning generations, illustrates what it means, for some, to be Australian. It does not speak for everyone, no story can. But it tells a story that some people might be able to relate to. It allows people who might not have had these experiences to take this journey.
Other historical fiction comes in the forms of stand-alone books, rather than series such as these. One example is The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton, telling the story of Nell, and her journey to Australia on the eve of the First World War. Morton uses the backdrop of the war and the years before to create the story and the mystery that leads back to a house in country England, with echoes of The Secret Garden in the title and where one character is hidden away throughout the novel. Kate Grenville’s 2005 novel, The Secret River tells the story of the NSW Governor in 1806, looking to take over the land of the Hawkesbury, owned by the Darug Aborigines. It is a novel that does not shy away from the inequities of colonisation and the treatment of the Aboriginal people during the early days, years and decades of the new colonies and emerging white settlements. Such a novel explores the ideas of what one might do when faced with the dilemma faced by colonists about who would be able to live where, and of course, how these decisions impacted the next two hundred years.
As a young country, one might think Australia would not have a rich history to draw from. Even though most historical fiction novels and series are centred on white Australian stories, there is room for the stories of all Australians to be told beyond the history books. It would be quite interesting to read a novel set in World War Two from the perspective of an Aboriginal on the home front or as soldiers, and what their experiences were compared to white soldiers. They are part of Australia just as others are, and their stories of their history need to be told. Having these stories told as historical fiction as well as non-fiction would contribute to the cultural fabric and history of Australia, and by extension, the world. Reading historical fiction set in different countries allows readers to experience in some way what that time may have been like. These days, people cannot go back in time to colonial days, so reading about the time, places and people enables a new experience and hopefully, by extension, a desire to learn more.