I was going to title this blog post something about Epics as that is the major kind of historical fiction I’ve not yet mentioned, though perhaps Cryptonomicon might be an epic. And I’m not completely sure that Coming Home is an epic. The book is of epical size (more than 1000 pages) and covers about 10 years of one persons life. I think that to qualify as an epic it should talk about multiple generations of a family or something larger in scope than one person’s life.
The main character of Coming Home is Judith Dunbar, whom we first meet when she is 14 and about to enter boarding school in England while her mother and sister rejoin her father in Sri Lanka. The whole book is about Judith’s search for a place that she can call home. Judith enters boarding school at 14 in 1935, so do the math. When she’s 18 and leaving school war is about to begin. The book is not about WW2 as much as it is about people who lived at the time when WW2 happened and changed their lives. Part of the setting is the war. But the theme, homecoming, could have been addressed without the historical setting. The historical setting may have made it easy for the author to rip away the main character’s sense of home and place, but the theme has been dealt with in other ways.
I like the book and re-read it because I like the characters and the strong sense of place, not because it is about a particular time in history. If I were to compare Coming Home with The Twilight of Courage, which makes sense as both are set during WW2 and are of a similar length and I read them first in the mid-90s, I’d say that CH has stayed in my head and ToC has not. CH sticks with me because of Judith and the places and situations she finds herself in looking for home — the character and settings are memorable. I can’t even remember the characters names in ToC because I think there are too many of them. I’m sure the title about courage has something to do with the key idea of the book but I couldn’t give you a synopsis of it as I’ve done with CH. I remember the first time I read CH, where I was and what I was doing; I don’t have a similar memory for ToC. To sum up: historical fiction works well when the elements of story, character, and setting all connect to make a memorable whole. This is true for any kind of fiction. This may be obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs to be said.