Truth may be stranger than fiction, but what happens when truth merges with fiction? One of the fastest growing sub-genres in fiction today: the biographical novel which is closely based upon the life of an actual person –- someone who is most often either famous or infamous.
Ilija Trojanow’s The Collector of Worlds captures the life of a man who was both. Sir Richard Francis Burton was an explorer, a linguist, a soldier, a spy, and a groundbreaking ethnologist, although he probably wouldn’t have considered himself one. In Trojanow’s novel a reader gets to tag along on Burton’s journeys through territories previously unknown to Western eyes.
The Collector of Worlds is a tale of adventure on the grandest level and, at the same time, an exploration of a man who truly embodied the notion of “larger than life.” The New York Times reviewer said that it “achiev[ed] a rounded and satisfying portrait that traditional biography could never match” — perhaps this is exactly where good biographical fiction gains its edge.
In The Women, T. Coraghessan Boyle fictionalizes the life of iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright through his tempestuous relationships with four women: the Montenegren beauty, Olgivanna Milanoff; the passionate Southern belle Maude Miriam Noel; the independent, free-spirited Mamah Borthwick Cheney; and his first wife Kitty Tobin, the mother of six of his children.
The Mistress of Nothing, Kate Pullinger’s 2009 Governor General’s award winner, takes the reader on a trip down the Nile with a fictional account of the story behind Lucy Duff Gordon’s Victorian travel classic Letters from Egypt. Through the narration of Gordon’s maid, Sally Naldrett — who is eventually made homeless and destitute by her devotion to Her Lady – Pullinger creates what the GG judges described as a“ highly sensual evocation of place and time… that explores the subtle complexities of power, race, class and love during the Victorian era.”
And lastly, any discussion of biographical novels would be remiss if it didn’t include one of their masters: Australian Peter Carey. The two-time Booker prize winner has written other historical novels, but first truly entered the world of biographical fiction with 2001’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Carey works magic with the life of Australian folk hero Ned Kelly, the Aussie equivalent of Robin Hood or Jesse James, using the colloquial voice of Kelly himself (unpunctuated except for full stops) writing an account for his daughter preserved as “13 parcels of stained dog-eared papers.” It’s a tour-de-force, but you don’t have to take my word for that: it won the 2001 Booker Prize.
Love it or hate it, biographical fiction is here to stay, and I probably don’t have to tell you that I love it. And I know the reason why. To quote Ms. Pullinger: “Anyone who stoops so low as to actually read fiction that deals with historical subjects knows, this is why fiction can sometimes be the only way to tell the truth.”