Erin Frances Fisher: The Pleasure of Details

That Tiny Life is the debut from Erin Frances Fisher, winner of the 2014 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, and was published earlier this year to rave reviews. In this reading list, she recommends books by authors who love good historical details just as much as she does. 

*****

Writing the stories in That Tiny Life took a lot of research—more research than I was used to—and this process surprised me by being incredibly fun. 

Some of that research was easier to access: my sister is a falconer and let me tag along when she went rabbit hunting with her hawk, and as a young kid I lived in Inuvik, NWT. Astronauts on the International Space Station livestream videos from space, and I found everything I needed about Civil War amputation via era-enthusiasts’ blogs and articles. 

The story that took the most time was “Da Capo al Fine,” set in Revolutionary Paris. I spent a lot of time virtually wandering Versailles and Paris using online maps’ street-view functions. Palaces that are now museums have displays on newspapers, parties and gambling, clothing, and the river baths. I also went to the library at the local university and took out a pile of books on harpsichord and pianoforte builders knowing that I was going to write about the switch of prominence between those two instruments. I also read a footnote somewhere that said a German harpsichord builder Tobias Schmidt was friends with the headsman of France, and that he constructed the guillotine for the French Revolution—you’ll have to read the story if you want to know more. 

Here are eight books by Canadian writers whose works suggest they enjoyed their research as much as I did. 

*

Siege 13, by Tamas Dobozy

In one of my favourite story collections, Dobozy builds his narratives around the events of the Soviet Budapest Offensive at the end of WWII. The linked stories are darkly funny and moving, and touched with surrealism and irony. The story I think of most often is set in a contemporary community of Hungarians and titled "The Beautician": “Of all the old dissidents at the Szécsényi Club, Árpád Holló wore the most makeup. From far away it was unnoticeable, he looked great, all fin de siècle elegance with pomaded hair and well-cut suits, a fresh rose in his buttonhole.” 

*

The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon

I read this novel when it first came out in 2009, and thinking about it for this list makes me want to read it again. Aristotle is pressed by the King Philip of Macedon to tutor a thirteen-year-old Alexander the Great. The book is at times funny and sad, and brings to life Aristotle’s relationships and family as well as his teaching and involvement in war. Lyon’s Acknowledgements read like a bibliography, but she says, “Scholars will turn purple over my sending Artistotle to Chaeronea. There is no evidence, in his of any other writings, of his presence there.” 

*

Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan 

By now everyone has heard about this novel: Washington Black is a young field slave chosen by his master’s brother as a manservant, and nothing is as it seems. What I loved most is the way Edugyan constantly surprised me as a reader. The book takes historical fiction and doesn’t go where you expect—there’s a moment with an early prototype of the diving suit, and then a trip to the arctic. Unlike a lot of historical fiction, what unifies Wash’s story is not the time or place, but Wash and Titch’s relationship and the complications of love, family and power.

*

The Frozen Thames, by Helen Humphreys

A collection of vignettes that span from 1142 to 1927, capturing forty times in semi-recent memory that the river Thames has frozen solid. The book itself is beautiful, with historical sketches and paintings worked into the narrative. Imagery and memories of all the different narrators over the years create a timeline for the true protagonist—the river. 

“1408—The birds fall from the trees. They tumble from the roofs and chimney-pots where they have perched. They are heavier in death than they were in life. Solid and flightless, they fall to the ground like dark, feathered apples, with exactly that weight, the weight of an apple.”

*

The World Before Us, by Aislinn Hunter

Collectively narrated by ghosts, this is a slow-burning, intricately structured novel with timelines that wrap around each other: a Victorian asylum, contemporary London, and decaying country house that connects both. In the past, Jane lost track of a young girl she was watching and the child was never seen again. Jane, in the present, is now an archivist at a closing museum, and sets out on a search for information about a woman who disappeared from an asylum 125 years before. Reading this book you’ll find yourself pondering the world that’s spread out before you, and the world that existed before you came to be.

*

All True Not a Lie In It, by Alix Hawley

This is Daniel Boone’s life as a novel, and I’m reading this book right now. It’s both funny and bloodthirsty, the landscape of the American Frontier is portrayed dreamlike and harsh, but what strikes me most is the little snippets of reflection directed towards the dead in Boone’s life. Boone says “Oh Ma and you others all gone now, all of my dead, you know that I begin well.”

In her acknowledgements Hawley writes “My family has lost me to the frontier for some time…” and I believe her. 

*

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

I’m a huge fan of the literary genre novel, and The Sisters Brothers is one of my favourite books. DeWitt’s direct and unembellished style is delightfully vivid: “The road had turned to mud and deep puddles, and to cross we were forced to hobble over a series of wooden planks. The woman enjoyed this and her laughter was clear and rich in the morning.”

Eli and Charlie Sisters are headed to kill Hermann Kermit Warm on Warm’s gold-mining claim outside of San Francisco. The book is funny and grotesque—there’s a scene that involves a spoon and a horse’s eye—and run through with melancholy. Added to that all the details of the gold rush and professional killers in the west. 

*

By Gaslight, by Steven Price

A dark, foggy novel By Gaslight traverses many different settings and takes its time doing it—the paperback is 731 pages. The books starts in 1885 London, with dips into backstory during the American Civil War and in South Africa’s diamond industry. There’s theft, historical noir, a séance, murder, a hot air balloon.  

What I loved about this book is a technical thing: the chapters are so well crafted that I didn’t notice the length. And check out this passage on Victorian London’s docks: “He could smell the open crates of fish in their glister and the reek of bundled tobacco mingling with the cinnamon and rum. He passed a box of open horns and ivory with the flesh tufted and rotting at the bases and the stink of it made his eyes water. His soles stuck to and peeled from the slatted boards of the wharf and he realized it was old sugar spilled from the sheds nearby…"

*

About That Tiny Life: 

In settings that range from the old American West to pre-revolutionary France, from a present-day dig site in the high tablelands of South America to deep space, That Tiny Life is a wide-ranging and utterly original collection of short fiction and a novella that examines the idea of progress—humanity’s never-ending cycle of creation and destruction.

In the award-winning story, “Valley Floor,” a surgeon performs an amputation in the open desert in the American West. In “Da Capo al Fine,” set in eighteenth-century France, the creator of the fortepiano designs another, more brutal instrument. And in “That Tiny Life,” the reader gets a glimpse into a future in which human resource extraction goes far beyond Earth. Each story is infused with impeccably researched detail that brings obscure and fascinating subject matter into bright relief, be it falconry, ancient funeral rites, or space exploration. The result is an amazing interplay of minute detail against the backdrop of huge themes, such as human expression and impact, our need for connection, the innate violence in nature, and the god-complex present in all acts of human creation.

A highly accomplished, evocative, and wholly impressive work of short fiction, That Tiny Life introduces readers to a writer with limitless range and imagination.

November 26, 2018
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