Art imitates life, as the saying goes, and it’s not always accidental. Some of the most amazing fiction books are based on true stories. Props to the authors who are forthright about it, and don’t hide behind disclaimers about resemblances being “coincidental”. Sure, sometimes it can be controversial to rip off the real world, even downright problematic, but I reckon as long as the book is shelved as fiction and the author is honest about what inspired them and what they made up, it’s all fair game. Here are some of my favourite fiction books based on true stories…
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
We all know the rhyme: Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks, and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one. Of course, as with all crimes that pass in to lore, that’s not quite what happened (in fact, we might never know the truth of what happened to Lizzie Borden’s parents, given that she was acquitted of their murder and everyone involved is long gone). Still, it’s good material put to good use in See What I Have Done. Schmidt reaches her own conclusions about who Lizzie whacked, and with what, and why, but more so than any other adaptation of this story, she delves in to the strange psychology that underlies this tale.
The Girls by Emma Cline
“I looked up because of the laughter,” Evie’s story begins, “and kept looking because of the girls,”. From that, the title of The Girls – Emma Cline’s debut novel – is derived. She’s taken a lash at the Manson cult and the murder of Sharon Tate, but instead of focusing on the charismatic leader or the gory details, she focuses on (you guessed it) the girls who followed him. All of the people involved have undergone a name change, and a lot of the details don’t quite match up – but this is fiction, after all, and Cline has been quite clear about that. Still, it’s undeniably inspired by the crime that defined California in the late ’60s.
Room by Emma Donoghue
Josef Fritzl is a world-wide household name, for the very worst reason. In 2008, it emerged that he had kept his daughter, Elisabeth, captive in a secret basement for twenty four years. The details of the case are sickening, truly the stuff of nightmares, but Emma Donoghue has translated the story into a fascinating and compelling work of fiction, Room. I think the masterstroke is telling the story through the eyes of Jack, a child born in captivity, and rather than focusing on the horrific crime and the man behind it, turning the focus instead to the bond between mother and son.
At The Wolf’s Table by Rosella Postorino
When I first heard Rosella Postorino talking about At The Wolf’s Table on the radio, I didn’t actually realise she was talking about her own book. It was such a fascinating true story, that of the conscripted women who were food tasters for Hitler, that I was completely hooked without even knowing I could read more about it. Postorino was inspired by Margot Wölk, a woman who didn’t reveal until very late in her life that she had been one of Hitler’s food tasters. Sadly, she passed soon after sharing her story, so we have lost the opportunity to learn more about what that life was like, but we can be glad that Postorino has found a way to tell a version of her story to the world.
A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James
I must admit, I’m not as across the history of reggae music – or the history of Jamaica, for that matter – as I should be. I’m hoping I’ll learn more from A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James. It uses a single event, the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (even I know who he is), to tell the stories of dozens of characters across decades. A quick Google search has led me to a few interesting articles about the attempted murder (gunmen attacked Marley at his house, and though he sustained injuries, he went on to play a full 90-minute set at the Smile Jamaica Concert, attended by over 80,000 people), and I’m sure the novelisation will be just as fascinating.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Unless you’ve already read Burial Rites, you probably don’t know the name Agnes Magnusdottir. She was the last woman to be executed in Iceland, in 1829, beheaded with a broad axe at just 34 years of age. She was convicted of the brutal murders of two men (one of whom was known to be her lover), and an attempt to cover up the crime by arson. It would make for a great true crime read all on its own, but Hannah Kent has done something special in weaving it into fiction, allowing us to more closely examine the power of rumour and fear and dignity in the face of it all.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Here’s one of the more controversial ones: The Tattooist Of Auschwitz was an international best-seller, its fire surely fuelled by author Heather Morris’s repeated assurances that the story was as factually accurate as possible, with some details added or altered by “dramatic license”. The book is based on the real-life love story of Lali Sokolov and the woman he fell for while tattooing her at Auschwitz. Given the sensitivity of the subject matter, it has been subject to extensive criticism, with many – book reviewers and Holocaust historians alike – calling into doubt its veracity. For her part, though, Morris insists that “the book does not claim to be an academic historical piece of non-fiction, I’ll leave that to the academics and historians,”. Fair enough, I say, but of course it’s up to each reader to decide for themselves.