I suppose we must all ask ourselves in reading history, what distinguishes the historians task from that of the novelist, the historical novelist in particular. The simple question, Is it true? leads inevitably into philosophical waters. In a note at the end of her new novel, Bring Up the Bodies, Hillary Mantel makes the reader a proposal: I try to show how a few crucial weeks might have looked from Thomas Cromwells point of view. I am not claiming authority for my position. She offers us, amid all the speculation and debate surrounding the death of Anne Boleyn, a possible version of the events. This in turn seems to be a thumbnail definition of genre: historical fiction is an act of imagination that accommodates some, not all, of the facts. The work cannot be but a twenty first century production, yet the author proposes a sixteenth century perspective. Our faith in imagination is that we can recover the past, in a way intelligible to us while not in violation of the past. To accept the proposal, to agree to the authors version, is to understand the motives and reactions of character in our own terms, and yet extend our vision to include those social imaginaries no longer possible for us today the status of the anointed king, for instance. Mantel inhabits the consciousness of Thomas Cromwell, yet manages in the books shifting perspectives the free indirect style that alternates with the almost coercive we as narrative stance to give us insight into those who act and respond around him.I finished the novel while I was away from home, and searching for something else to read on the return journey, I borrowed Don DeLillos Libra. The author could have attached the same note of explanation and proposal to his work. If the records related to the execution of Anne Boleyn are both puzzling and uncertain, certainly those related to the assassination of John F. Kennedy are infinitely more so. DeLillo give us a sense of the impossibility of doing justice to the historical record in the person of Nicholas Branch, commissioned by the CIA to compile a true history of the events. Branch inhabits a room awash in paper and as he writes, the Curator adds more testimony to his already over-burdened room. Branch admits, The case will haunt him to the end. Of course theyve know it all along. Thats why they built this room for him, the room of growing old, the room of history and of dreams. If Hilary Mantel defines the genre of historical fiction, DeLillo offers us a version of the author of such fiction. A definitive account of the matter is a ghost of hope that bedevils the dream of truth.Happily DeLillo and Mantel are successful in seeing their stories to an end. Both writers, in their works so different in time, make the textures of their imagined worlds work through dialogue, shifts of place, and through the discontinuities, the gaps where dots of cause and effect are not connected in a resolution - that assurance is more the purview of detective fiction. There is something like the fog of history as there is the fog of war. But more to the fore is the examination of character motive and goal. Cromwell is ruthless, determined to eliminate his enemies, just as he is aware of the precarious nature of the favor granted him by the King. So we begin to understand Lee Harvey Oswald, the libra of the title, a man on a balance who can swing either way, with the weight of forces that though opposed appear oddly similar.In the hands of these two masters, historical fiction does us the great good service of exposing conspiracy theories for what they are, possible version of what happened. The truth beyond the facts appears elusive and in that very political uncertainty we, ordinary citizens, are called to judge and act. The past in Cromwells and Oswalds case is not a place where they do things differently, but rather a now, a present peopled with those who act and feel in ways very familiar.