Yesterday, I shared a post about some of the novels I’ve read and enjoyed based during WWI and it’s aftermath. Today I’d like to share with you some of the books that made me think about the experiences of WW2. As I mentioned yesterday, I married into a Polish family in 2001 and this gave me a totally different perspective on the war. My mother-in-law was a child in the Warsaw Ghetto and was sent through the sewer system to escape without either of her parents in the first instance; her father was somewhere fighting and when an opportunity to save her daughter came along, her mother grasped it with both hands. They eventually reunited in England, but didn’t find Hana’s father. Years later they found him; he had ended up in the USA, believing both of them to be dead. Several years after the war he had married again and had another daughter. I couldn’t imagine this type of dislocation; it seems unthinkable that we might not know where our loved ones are or even whether they’re still alive. Yet if we can cast our minds back to a world with nothing but snail mail, where both parties have been taken from their country of origin it’s conceivable that it would take some time and determination to find each other. Hana bore no ill will to her half-sister, they were treated as family and often visited each other, to and fro across the pond. In fact, my late husband was attending a family wedding with them in Cape Cod when 9/11 happened.
My father-in-law’s story was just as terrible and it still breaks my heart to think of them both going through so much at such a young age. When war broke out my father-in-law Aleks and his younger brother were living in Krakow with their mother. Their father was an officer in the army and believing the family to be a danger, Aleks was detained with his brother and mum. Eventually they were taken to a camp in Siberia by the Russians, where his younger brother sadly died. Somehow, Aleks escaped with his mother to join a group of Polish resistance living in the forest. Once the war was over, they were refugees and slowly made their way to England. I never met my mother-in-law, she died in a car accident in the 1990s. My husband died in 2007, followed by his father in 2016 and finally my brother-in-law Jan a year later. I have felt like the holder of these stories, because I don’t think they were written down anywhere. Eventually as the wider family is lost, these incredible lives will be undocumented. In reading the following novels I have gained more understanding about their experiences and feel closer to them. Reading has allowed me to put myself in their shoes, through the different characters and aspects of the story. Reading has made my in- law’s personal histories all the more extraordinary. Again this list of novels is not an exhaustive list of WWII fiction. They are just some of the books I’ve read that touched me in some way and opened up the experiences of those times. Although Remembrance Sunday is for our servicemen and women – made all the more important as I’m now marrying a RAF veteran – it tends to take my mind back to all those who have sacrificed something, especially in our two world wars. Whether it’s from the military point of view, or that of a widow, resistance fighter, or Holocaust survivor, it is so important to value and share these histories and make sure that we never forget them.
Atonement by Ian McEwan – Ian McEwan is such an incredible writer and this novel will always stay with me. I read the book before I saw the film and it was one of the few times where I haven’t been disappointed with the adaptation. Although the crucial events that send Robbie and Cecilia apart are before the war breaks out, the events that follow capture perfectly that sense of loved ones being torn apart by war. Robbie is the gardener’s son and has grown up in a cottage on the estate of the Tallis family. When his father dies Robbie and his mother stay on, and the family support Robbie to go to university at the same time as their eldest daughter Cecilia. We join the family in the heat of summer 1935 and watch events through the eyes of the much neglected younger sister Briony. Briony is a precocious child who wants to be a writer, creating plays to fill her time but also to control an environment where both her parents are so distant. Crucially, she seems to understand human behaviour, but is not emotionally mature enough to understand what really happens over one afternoon and evening that summer. She witnesses an exchange between Robbie and Cecilia, that is a moment of desire and flirtation. We realise this is a liaison that has grown at university; when away from the house Robbie has not been the gardener’s boy, but a contemporary of Cecilia’s. When later that evening a young guest at the house is attacked in the grounds by a man, Briony jumps to a terrible conclusion and names Robbie as the possible attacker. Accused of a crime he hasn’t committed Robbie faces a choice as war breaks out; prison or conscription into the army. He chooses to enlist, while Cecilia goes to London to train as a nurse. They are now parted, with just one last meeting where Cecilia begs him to come back to her. The novel is so evocative of the period, from the rather enclosed and privileged world of a landed estate to a completely changed landscape of war torn France for Robbie and a sandbagged, under attack London for Cecilia. The book is encased within a present day narrative where an older Briony now an author, is trying to unravel and understand the events of that summer and it’s aftermath through writing. We realise the story we are reading is her narrative, but will she finally write the truth and consequences of what she’s or will she write a fiction? The sections where Robbie is trudging through France, trying to get the coast where they will be evacuated is particularly poignant. Holed up in a bombed out house on the coast, we do not know if he will survive and come back for Cecilia. We need Briony to finish her narrative. A haunting, heartbreaking, piece of meta fiction from McEwan that really captures its period through a young generation who might lose everything they love to serve their country.
When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby – this book helped me to understand aspects of my father-in-law’s story that I’d only been able to guess at before. We follow Polish pilot Stefan through the eyes of two brave women helping the cause as best they can: Vee is a pilot with the ATS who moved military aircraft around the country to different bases; Ewa is Stefan’s sweetheart from his home town of Poznań and helps her father run their guest house while secretly running messages for the Polish resistance. Captured by the Russians, Stefan is witness to the Katyn massacre, an atrocity supposedly carried out by German forces. He then spends the rest of the war working trying to expose the truth of the massacre, dragging both women into his acts of espionage. Vee is very taken with the handsome and mysterious Polish pilot, but does he return her feelings or is she simply a means to an end? This book is beautifully researched and immersed me completely into these women’s lives. I love the way this book highlights women’s roles in the war and cleverly saves Stefan’s recollection of the massacre to the end, a device that makes sense of his actions and is truly devastating all at the same time.
A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson – this novel is the follow up to Atkinson incredible novel Life After Life which tells the story of the 20th Century through the life of a young girl called Ursula Todd. This companion novel follows the life of her younger brother Ted and hops about from present day York where Ted is an old man, across the 20th Century to WWII and the how it affects the years that follow. Using her incredible skill with time slip we keep going back to his war as a bomber pilot, where missions started against strategic resources but then moved on to civilian targets. We see his regard for every single life lost summed up as Aunt Izzy consumes a skylark. For Ted it isn’t just one skylark, but the next generation of skylarks and on into the future where a huge flock is now silenced. He must ponder on the many generations he snuffed out in those later bombing raids. However, I also found it very moving that Atkinson beautifully illustrates how the generations scarred by war passed that trauma on to their children. I’ve read psychological research that posits the theory of WWI veterans passing trauma to their children, who then experienced WWII. The aftermath being the following generations mental ill health. While a ‘stiff upper lip’ may be vital in wartime, it can feel confining or even be dangerous to young people in peacetime. That 1960s exploration of feelings and pacifism was antithesis to parents who’d known the rigours of military training and the hardship of battle. Similarly, we see that Ted has not been happy in his marriage but stayed with his wife, apart from one war time indiscretion full of the feeling missing from his marriage. He wonders at his daughter’s ability to accept relationship breakdown solely for reasons of personal happiness. The main difficulty of living through the 20th Century for Ted is that he has done so, while others didn’t. I won’t reveal the end, but I was dreading Ted’s death because I’d become so fond of him. Atkinson plays with her characters though, and a big reveal towards the end reduced me to tears. Exceptional.
The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman – This book probably isn’t thought of as a traditional war novel, but despite its supernatural elements it has a moving depiction of war and how the Holocaust affected Jewish communities across Europe.
We join Hanni Kohn and her daughter Lea in Berlin at the beginning of WWII.The verbal propaganda against German Jews is now turning into action and after Lea is attacked by a soldier on her way home, Hanni intervenes with terrible consequences. Now Hanni knows she must get Lea out of Berlin, but how can they both leave when Hanni is looking after her elderly mother. Desperately looking for some way of protecting Lea, Hanni falls on the idea of a Golem – a mythical Jewish creature animated from clay. Hoffman’s story blends historical fact, outlining the fate of Jews in Berlin and France while the world claimed ignorance, with the story of the four girls. One is lost before they leave the country leaving behind a loved one intent on getting their revenge. There are other characters in the novel bringing their own past and perspective to the story. Despite having their own narrative Hoffman cleverly weaves their stories together and they all encounter each other at some time during the war. On Lea and Ava’s travels in France we meet Julien, his brother Victor and their parents. As a Jewish family resident in Paris their parents imagine themselves safe from the fate of Jewish refugees like Lea and Ava. At huge personal risk they let Lea and Ava join the household as their servant Marianne has left that morning. Ava takes to kitchen work while Lea forms a friendship with Juliet. Victor is mourning Marianne who we follow back to her father’s farm in the mountains bordering Switzerland. Victor decides to leave soon after, but his travels take him into the Resistance first where he meets a certain young woman hellbent on revenge. Julien is left behind, when Ava and Lea leave, and he watches as his parent’s assumptions of safety are all proved wrong and they are lead to a stadium in burning heat. They are stripped of their jewellery and other valuables and kept without sanitation or food until they can be transported to the death camps, bewildered and broken. Julien hatches a last minute plan and manages to slip out of the stadium and into the labyrinth of streets until a special messenger gives him an idea of where Lea might be. This book is a story of finding ways to survive, whether that be fighting, hiding, building a supernatural protector or falling in love.
The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult – For me this beautiful novel is Jodi Picoult’s best. It weaves three different narratives. In the present day Sage Singer is a baker, seemingly hiding by taking a night shift at a local bakery and cafe, and taking care of her Grandma in the day. She has no friends and hides her face with a hoodie at all times. Sage feels a massive guilt about something and her face is hidden due to a large scar. One day as she’s late leaving the bakery, she meets an elderly customer Josef Weber and they make a connection. They become unlikely friends but each has a scar they are hiding – Josef discloses to Sage a secret about his past, one that will call her own identity into question and challenge their newfound friendship forever. He asks a favour of Sage, who agonises over whether she can grant his wish. Woven with this is a very dark fairytale, set in an Eastern-European forest where a young girl is part of a baking family. We learn that this strange tale is told by Sage’s grandmother. As Sage wrestles with Josef’s disclosure about the war, she starts to hear her grandmother’s incredible story. Minka went to Auschwitz where her knowledge of German brings her to the attention of the treasurer of the camp, and he makes her his assistant. He tells her he is a good man, who was forced to serve his country this way. He has a much more brutal brother at the camp and sets himself apart from his atrocities. Minke is sickened by the work they do gathering and valuing prisoner’s belongings once they are sent to the chambers, but she knows it is the only thing keeping her alive. That, and her strange ‘upior’ story which fascinates the treasurer. When Sage takes the step of contacting Leo, a lawyer for a commission hunting Nazi’s who escaped justice she reports Josef as an officer in a concentration camp. Now she must struggle with a complex set of moral choices; does her Jewish background mean she must implicate Josef? As she ponders whether she can betray her friend, Sage must confront her own guilt and the end of her grandmother’s story. The final reveal is heart wrenching.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
The second Kate Atkinson book in my selection is set in 1940s London and a tale of wartime espionage. Juliet Armstrong is only 18 when she is recruited to an obscure department of MI5. Far from exciting, she finds the job of tracking and translating the comings and going’s of Nazis and their sympathisers by turns terrifying and boring. When the war is over, she imagines those days far behind her but ten years later, when Juliet is working at the BBC she is confronted by figures from her wartime past. She was monitoring British Nationalists such as those who rose up with Oswald Moseley and warns the reader not to confuse patriotism with nationalism. Nationalism is only a step away from fascism. I loved that there were parts of the novel that resonate into current politics and struggles for equality. Juliet is a naive girl in a very male environment and soon finds herself pursued by a superior. He tells her not to worry about the more serious people she’s monitoring. He tells her to watch out for clowns; clowns are dangerous and then no one’s laughing. I loved Juliet, she’s such an intelligent and incisive operative, with flashes of humour. She observes that the Russians had been their enemies, then allies and now enemies again. The Germans were enemies and now allies. On and on it would go forever, she muses in later life and I could imagine her adding ‘in the hands of men’. This is not as emotive as other books on the list, but the war wasn’t just won on the battlefield, it was also won by intelligence gatherers in dusty offices in London.
The Nightwatch by Sarah Waters – I loved Sarah Water’s’ Victorian fiction so took a while to start this novel set in the Blitz. I was wrong to wait because this book is a masterpiece. It tells the story of four Londoners – three women and one man – during 1940/41. Kay has been given space during the war to work out who she is. She’s an ambulance driver, and is at full throttle most of the time, but lately she’s been wearing masculine clothes and feels a restless energy inside her. Helen is sweet and much loved by her family, but holds a secret deep within. Viv is the glamour girl, she is fiercely loyal to her soldier lover but is that loyalty misplaced? Then there’s Duncan who is fighting demons from his war experience. All of their lives intersect, sometimes in surprising ways and tragic circumstances. What I love about this novel is its structure. Instead of meeting our characters and moving forwards with them, we work backwards and gradually questions are answered and behaviour is explained. I fell in love with the character of Viv, who is larger than life, but so open and easy to hurt. Her descriptions of London in the Blitz are so vivid and terrifying. The thought that my home, my haven and place where all my favourite things and people are could be wiped out in a second while I’m at work was so scary. I could imagine that level of threat and insecurity every day would wear you down over time and leave a long term scar. This had a brilliant sense of time and place, a London we would recognise, but made utterly foreign.
The Women at Hitler’s Table by Rosella Postorino – the story of Rosa, one of ten women chosen to taste Hitler’s food for poison. She does this to survive but knows that every bite may be her last.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – a beautiful story of a blind French girl and a young German boy in occupied France. Marie-Laure and her father have fled to St Malo, hiding a precious jewel from the museum where he works. Werner has learned to fix and use radios to the extent that he becomes useful to the German cause. This book is about two people meeting and trying to be good to each other in terrible circumstances.
The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak – this is an incredible novel weaving stories of book thief Liesel, Death himself, and the Jewish man Leisel’s family hide in their basement. Definitely lives up the hype.
I want to make honourable mention of the very recent book A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington. Not a war novel, but there is a section where our lead character is given a letter after her mother’s death. They have a difficult relationship, and when her mother relates her wartime experience we understand why this woman could not love her daughter. The letter is beautifully written, told without pity or sentiment, and is utterly devastating.