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!
I’ve been sitting here for a while now, pen in hand, and I’m finding my review of “All the Light We Cannot See” really hard to write. During the last few days I’ve been utterly taken over but this novel: every spare minute I’ve had I’ve returned to it and when I haven’t been reading I’ve been thinking and talking about it. After a few pages I was pretty sure I was reading something special; by the last page there was no doubt. And now here I am, faced with the challenge of trying to convey the sheer brilliance of the book…. and all the superlatives I can think of seem somehow inadequate.
Then again, I guess by now everyone has some idea of exactly how good it is: it’s just won the Pulitzer Prize and has had glowing reviews by people far better than me at coming up with complimentary adjectives! So instead of spending the next couple of hundred words trying to find synonyms for “fantastic” I’m just going to talk about the effect this book had on me and the ideas that resonated with me as I read. In fact, I think my lasting memory of “All the Light We Cannot See” will be the almost unbearable intensity of emotion it evoked and the way words and images from it bubbled around in my head for some time afterwards.
Set primarily in Germany and occupied France during the Second World War, the novel’s two main characters are Marie-Laure, a blind girl driven out of Paris with her father when the Germans invade, and Werner, a German orphan whose talent for building and repairing radio equipment brings him to the attention of the Hitler Youth movement. The idea of sound as a way of connecting with the world is a hugely important theme – for both children it is a lifeline when literally or figuratively deprived of sight. Marie-Laure relies heavily on sound to navigate the world around her. For Werner, the magical voices that reach him via his first homemade radio set promise the possibility of a life beyond his orphanage home and a bleak future working down the mines where his father perished. Even Volkheimer, one of the most respected and feared members of the Hitler Youth, manages momentarily to escape the horrors of what he’s been forced to do and see through his love of classical music. Reading the novel is an incredibly sensory experience. When Marie-Laure explores the wonder of the seashore for the first time, we experience it as she does: through the delicate grooves of a shell, the smell of the salt and the cool softness of the sand. As a radio operator much of Werner’s knowledge of conflict comes through the static of his headphones, and we are largely left to imagine the horrors as he hears first he Russian voices, then the gunshots, then the silence. By the time the book drew to a close, I had not only an incredibly vivid visual image of the novel’s world in my mind, but really felt as if I had listened, smelled and touched my way through the story as well. I think that’s why I found “All the Light We Cannot See” so profoundly moving – we’re so used to relying on sight to make connections with people around us, but instead this novel plays on the importance of those mysterious links that can exist between two people who have never even set eyes on one another. A mere voice piercing the darkness in our most desperate times can give us hope and a reason to survive.
One of the most effective ways to recommend a book is to compare it to another, but I couldn’t think of any useful comparison for this particular novel. If I had to sum it up I would say it’s literary while remaining accessible, moving without being bleak and a riveting insight into an important period of recent history without ever losing sight of the human stories that provide its heart. I thought this book was exceptional – as the saying goes, miss it, miss out.
I’m very aware that it’s been all quiet on the blogging front this week. Work, defective laptops, blocked sinks… you name it, it’s got in the way of my precious writing time – and, most importantly, my precious reading time! But I tell you what, I’ve got a couple of cracking books on the go right now. “Flood of Fire” is reaching its conclusion (I know I’ve been talking about this for ages but it’s just not the kind of book you can race through!) and I have to say I’m going to feel quite bereft when this epic trilogy comes to an end. Also on the currently reading pile is the astounding “All the light we cannot see”, which is blowing my mind a little bit more with every page. There will be reviews of these two gems appearing on Girl, Reading very shortly, but right now, after this fleeting blog visit, I’m withdrawing from the world to spend the rest of the bank holiday with my books – the best bank holiday I’ve had in a very long time.