When you consider all the novelists who’ve been inspired to write about the Second World War, the numbers are huge. The events of those few momentous years have provided – and are providing still – the subject matter for a vast swathe of the contemporary literary canon. I don’t read military history and I don’t seek out documentaries on the period, and yet when it comes to fiction I find myself drawn time and again to stories set during that time. It was such as enormous and multi-faceted conflict, affecting people from all continents and all walks of life, that the human experiences to be explored are almost endless. All the books in my top five take a very different angle on the war and what it meant for those caught up in it, so I really hope that something here will catch your eye. So here are…
…my top 5 novels of the Second World War
- “All the Light we cannot see” by Anthony Doerr – if you’re a regular visitor to my blog you may have read the glowing review I wrote for this book a few months ago. The juxtaposed stories of a blind girl stranded in France during the Nazi occupation and a gentle German boy forced into a life of violence that he really doesn’t want provide some of the most moving moments in fiction that I’ve ever come across. The ideas here of the survival of the human spirit against all the odds will stay lodged in your heart for a long time.
- “Suite Française” by Irène Némirovsky – I haven’t seen the recent film adaptation and am determined not to because I enjoyed the book so much. It’s superb in its own right but is rendered all the more poignant by the knowledge that the author, a Russian Jew, died in Auschwitz in 1942. The book is made up of two stories – she had planned to write more – that describe daily life in France as it was under the German occupation. The microcosms depicted would have, you feel, been played out countless times across the beleaguered country. It flits between the mundane and the desperately harrowing in a way that you sense is a very authentic representation of the time.
- “Obedience” by Jacqueline Yallop – this novel was nowhere near as prominently reviewed or talked about as the previous two, but it’s still an absolute gem. It concerns the developing relationship between a French nun and one of the occupying German soldiers that could best be described as unfortunate! The consequences for Sister Bernard don’t stop with the end of the war; we see in tragic detail how the decisions she made then play out during the rest of her life. It was quite an unusual story, I thought, and one worth discovering if you haven’t already.
- “HHhH” by Laurent Binet – now this is something very different. It’s based on the true story of an Allied mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Nazi secret service, while he is visiting what was then Czechoslovakia. It’s an unbearably tense adventure novel, but it’s something more besides, which sets it apart from most other novels of its kind. The striking element is the very audible presence of the narrator who, as well as telling the tale, tells us of his struggles in trying to present a factual account without succumbing to the temptation of artistic licence. It sounds a bit of a weird idea, but honestly it really works – and it certainly makes you think about how many of our notions regarding historical events might be skewed by unreliable narrators.
- “Maus” by Art Spiegelman – I’m sure you’ll forgive me for including a graphic novel on my list since it is arguably one of the most famous fictional depictions of the Holocaust ever created. It’s certainly the most powerful I’ve ever read. In this version, the Nazis become cats and the Jews mice; other than that, events play out as they really happened. I’ve never been able to get my head around exactly why replacing humans with animals makes this book so heart-wrenching. Maybe we can envisage the fragility of a mouse more easily than that of a human? I don’t know. What I do know is that this is a masterpiece that needs to be experienced by everyone. I saved the best until last with this list, so if you read no others, please try this.
I hope you enjoyed my top five today; as ever, I would love to hear your favourites!