The English Patient
As World War II draws to a close, a young Canadian nurse, shell-shocked by grief, is caring for a mysterious, catastrophically injured man in an abandoned Italian villa. Who exactly is the English patient? How did he come to fall burning from the sky in the North African desert? A profound and beautiful novel about love, betrayal and patriotism that explores the impact of war on different nations across the globe.
When her lover, airman Peter Gregory, disappears over France, Charlotte Gray joins British intelligence in order to search for him. Her quest takes her to the thrilling and dangerous heart of the French Resistance, while also exposing her to the dark shadows of the Holocaust. Dedicated Faulks fans will spot that Charlotte is the daughter of Colonel Gray, Stephen Wraysford’s commanding officer in his World War I novel, “Birdsong.”
This novel explores the far-reaching impact of World War II on American civilians. The book follows the intertwined stories of three women: Iris James, postmistress in the small coastal town of Franklin, Massachusetts; Emma Fitch, the young wife of Franklin’s doctor, Will; and self-styled ‘radio gal’ Frankie Bard, who is reporting on the war in Europe for American listeners. When Will decides to go to London and help out during the blitz, his action changes the lives of all three women.
Louis de Bernieres
Following the Italian invasion of Greece in 1941, Captain Antonio Corelli is posted to the island of Cephalonia, where he encounters doctor’s daughter Pelagia. Despite her fierce hostility to the invaders, Pelagia is gradually won over by the peace-loving Captain Corelli and his beautiful playing of the mandolin—but as the war grows more intense and more unpredictable, will their love have the chance to survive? If you found the film underwhelming, don’t be put off the book. It’s far more moving, and much, much funnier.
“Suite Française” brings together two novellas, both written in the early 1940s. The first describes the chaotic journey of several Parisians fleeing the German invasion in June 1940; the second explores life in rural France under German occupation, as young wife Lucile Angellier finds herself attracted to the Nazi officer billeted at her home. The story behind “Suite Française” is as poignant as the text itself. The manuscript was discovered by Némirovsky’s daughter Denise 50 years after her mother’s death in Auschwitz in 1942, and was published to international acclaim in 2004.
Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy
In 1939, newlywed Harriet Pringle arrives in Romania with her sociable but erratic husband Guy, a university lecturer in Bucharest. The trilogy follows the Pringles as they struggle to survive in war-torn Europe, amidst a motley group of friends, rivals, hangers-on and bureaucrats. Part adventure, part social comedy, the books draw vividly on Manning’s own experiences of war and marriage. She subsequently wrote the Levant Trilogy, a second series of novels about the Pringles, this time set in Egypt.
Also published as “Iron in the Soul,” this novel—”La Mort dans l’âme in French—is the last completed book in Sartre’s masterly “Roads to Freedom” series. It explores the disillusionment of France’s swift and bitter defeat by the Nazis in June 1940. In limbo waiting for the Armistice to be signed, aesthete Daniel seduces a boy in the abandoned streets of Paris, convalescent soldier Boris opts to join the Free French in London, and philosophy teacher Mathieu finds his lifetime quest for personal freedom transformed into a defiant urge to kill.
Poet Owen Sheers’s first novel speculates on one of the great unknowns of World War II: what if Hitler had succeeded in occupying Britain? In an isolated Welsh valley, farmer’s wife Sarah wakes to discover that the local men have vanished to join the resistance. When a German patrol arrives on an important mission, Sarah and the other war-weary women find themselves compromising with the invaders in order to survive the harsh winter of 1944. Not to be confused with Anita Shreve’s 1996 novel, also called “Resistance,” about an injured US airman sheltered by a young woman in German-occupied Belgium.
Winter in Madrid
C. J. Sansom
A wartime thriller by the writer best known for his “Shardlake” novels. In Madrid, the Spanish civil war is over, but will Spain’s new leader General Franco now throw in his lot with fellow-fascist Hitler? Into this atmosphere of high tension comes reluctant spy Harry Brett, sent by the British Secret Service to investigate the shady business activities of his old school friend Sandy Forsyth. As Harry tries to fulfill his mission, he finds his personal and patriotic loyalties stretched tragically to breaking point.
The Glass Room
In the bright optimism of 1920s Czechoslovakia, wealthy Jewish car manufacturer Viktor Landauer and his bride Liesel commission an extraordinary new house with a magical room of glass at its heart. But as Hitler’s dark forces penetrate Europe, the Landauers are forced to flee, leaving many of their loved ones behind. Their house passes from Nazi to Soviet to Czech ownership, casting its spell on all who enter the Glass Room. A subtle and engrossing novel that explores the brutal impact of history on the intimacies of life, from passion and deception to hope for the future.
The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom
It seems we’re all fascinated by World War II, readers and writers alike. As I discovered when I was planning my wartime novel, The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom, there are endless stories to be told, of optimism and despair, of love and betrayal, of confusion and of joy.
The novels I’ve picked here mainly look at the impact of World War II on civilians. Some have the backdrops you’d expect: Nazi-occupied France, London in the blitz. Others have less familiar settings—Greece, Romania, Spain—demonstrating how far and how deep the devastations of war spread across Europe.
I’ve included several books by authors who lived through—or died in—World War II. Many of us can draw on research and imagination to write wartime novels, but I think it takes a particular kind of courage to relive your own experiences of such traumatic years. As the generation that remembers World War II begins to disappear, it seems more important than ever not to lose those authentic voices.
Image credit: Everett Historical/Shutterstock.com
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