Pantheon, $25, 368 pp.
There is no contemporary practitioner of the art of historical fiction more accomplished, in my view, than Thomas Mallon. His forays into the past have ranged from small-town life in post-World War II America (in Dewey Defeats Truman), to the frantic world of magazine publishing in the 1920s (in Bandbox), to the eponymous couple in Henry and Clara, who accompanied Lincoln and his wife to Ford’s Theater on the night of his assassination. (The latter, I think, is nothing short of a masterpiece.)
In “Writing Historical Fiction,” an illuminating essay reprinted in In Fact, a collection of his nonfiction, Mallon posits that readers in our increasingly ahistorical society “no longer go to historical fiction for explanation so much as for exoticism.” Such a development, he writes, is neither regrettable nor exceptional: “readers always liked historical fiction not because they wanted to drag history into the present and make it useful, but because they wanted to put themselves back into history, into the past, to wander as if in a dream, to ponder themselves as having been born too late-a much more common feeling than the feeling one has been born too soon.”
Mallon has a knack for making the past immediate and real, creating worlds at once utterly engaging yet marked by the “exoticism” that makes them fundamentally different from the present. Fellow...