The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden

Sharp historical fiction: The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden


The Book of Harlan is a detailed and sweeping historical novel that follows the story of Harlan Elliot from his parents’ courtship in Macon, Georgia to the irrevocable effects that his time in the Buchenwald concentration camp had on the rest of his life. He grows up and becomes a musician in Harlem, ending up invited with his best friend Lizard to play in Paris with their band. However, they are still in Paris when the Nazi occupation begins, and so Harlan’s story turns from rising musician to a fight for survival, and the horrifying effects even once the war is over.

McFadden uses a combination of historical fact and research, the stories of her ancestors, and imagined characters and emotion to create the vivid historical narrative spanning decades. Though Harlan is the main focus, there is a large cast of characters, and they fade in and out as they would from Harlan’s life, giving a real sense of the way people come and go, and how lives can be close or far apart. The complex depiction of Harlan’s parents and their roles in his life is a notable element, showing how familial love can be both strong and complicated. The novel is written in short, sharp chapters, allowing McFadden to jump time and give devastating moments in concise lines. Overall, this makes for a highly readable historical narrative, which is detailed but also fast paced, and captures a sense of the music that is so important especially in the first half of the novel.

This is a refreshing historical novel, written in a distinctive style and with a focus on race both in twentieth-century America and in the context of the Holocaust. McFadden shows that there are still new historical narratives to be written about a period that has been much fictionalised, ones in which the highs and the horrors are both shown, and where lesser-known history can sit alongside that which must be remembered.