Here are five fiction books that to me are as impressive as the best history book
My favourite reads: Michael Coetzee
I prefer reading non-fiction, so a novel has to really impress me to be given a spot on my bookshelf. Here are the five that remind me that a great story told with incredible skill can be as engrossing as the best history book.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)
There are more obvious - and easier - choices of protagonist for a historical novel set in and around the court of Henry VIII during the English Reformation than Thomas Cromwell. Another author may have opted for one of the other three Thomases who were central players in the drama that did so much to shape the future of England and Europe - Wolsey, More or Cranmer. There’s of course also the king himself, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. But Hilary Mantel’s intimate psychological portrait of a man usually presented as a villainous foil to the virtuous More will leave you with sympathy not just for him but also for his allies and deadly enemies.
Disgrace by J M Coetzee (1999)
Along with Mantel one of only four authors to have won the Man Booker Prize twice, JM Coetzee managed another rare feat by enraging both ends of South Africa’s political spectrum with Disgrace, attracting vitriolic - and incompatible - denunciations. A masterpiece of minimalist prose, this unrelentically bleak exploration of its titular theme has you nodding knowingly when a character says that “one ceases to be surprised that what used to be hard as hard can be grows harder yet”.
Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn (1991)
Timothy Zahn’s early 1990s continuation of the Star Wars saga is no longer the official story of what happened after Return of the Jedi, but there are many fans of the series who wish it still was. The first of novel in a trilogy, it tells a more interesting story than the recent films, perfectly capturing and building upon the movie series’ beloved characters and tone. It’s a quick, fun read, and a reminder of what might have been.
The Innocent by Ian McEwan (1990)
Ian McEwan uses a real series of events in early-Cold War Berlin as the backdrop for The Innocent, but as is to be expected from the author, this is no ordinary espionage novel. Young Leonard Marnham is eager to be pulled into an exciting world of secrets, ciphers and sex, but soon learns things about the world - and himself - that he would rather not know. It’s worth giving this a shot even if spy stories are not usually your thing.
Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks (1990)
This is the third entry in Iain M Banks’s The Culture series, but as it tells a standalone story, you don’t need to have read the first two (but do so anyway, as they are both excellent). It is famous for its twist - don’t Google it - but what really sets it apart from your average sci-fi novel is its unusual narrative structure, which makes it that rare treat that successfully straddles the line between genre fiction and literature.
Michael Coetzee is a subeditor at The National