5 Novels Capture World War II
Conflict is the rocket fuel of good fiction. Writers go anywhere to find it -- into imaginary barrooms and board rooms, their characters' bedrooms, even backward or forward in time. One of my favorite novels, Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, draws much of its power from the most devastating conflict in human history, World War II, using the aftermath of the war as a backdrop for personal struggle.
Ondaatje is not alone. Authors are still exploiting the drama of World War II, a war that, for baby boomers, remains particularly compelling. It is the dark period that preceded us -- the cataclysm that drew our mothers to munitions factories and our fathers to Normandy and Iwo Jima. Such a broad, far-reaching nightmare offers so many story lines and tangents that writers may never exhaust them.
Here are five novels, all somehow involving World War II, that are currently gaining attention.
1. Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. This novel, set largely in the jazz scene amid the chaos of pre-war Europe, centers on the friendship between a bassist and a young trumpet prodigy whose lives become ensnarled in personal jealousies and the political upheaval that accompanies Hitler's ascendance. Part of the story unfolds in 1939, and part takes place in the present, as the two musicians try to reconcile their tumultuous past. Edugyan's second novel was a finalist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize in Great Britain and is now being sold in the United States in paperback. Chris Barton, who reviewed it for the Los Angeles Times, says the book's greatest strength lies in "the rhythms of its conversations" and its narrator's "pitch-perfect voice," evident as he describes Nazi soldiers marching into Paris under their "dancing black spider" -- the swastika. "Half-Blood Blues is intoxicating," Barton says. Bernardine Evaristo of the British newspaper The Guardian has some quibbles, complaining that "it's hard to accept that both men would have chosen to live under the tyrannical regime of the Third Reich." Still, she says, "Edugyan really can write, and the final chapter is redemptive."
2. No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel. A far different take on 1939 occurs in Ausubel's poetic fable, set in the tiny, isolated village of Zalischik in northern Romania. With bombs threatening, the Jewish townspeople, inspired by an 11-year-old girl, enter a state of magical thinking: They pretend the war does not exist. "What follows," says The New Yorker, "is an absorbing and unpredictable novel that manages to encompass a wide geographic and emotional range, including wonderful interludes about a P.O.W. on an Italian island and a shocking glimpse into Hitler's bunker." In denying the existence of the menacing outside world, the villagers do little to protect themselves, points out Emily Carter in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "but the act itself is mad and beautiful, as is Ausubel's incantatory prose." Jane Ciabattari of The New York Times labels the book fantastical and ambitious, "infused with faith in the power of storytelling. Its concluding passages invoke a tone not unlike that of Chagall's tormented and apocalyptic painting 'The Falling Angel,'" in which Satan hurls the world into chaos, and yet a shining moon and glowing candle suggest enduring tenderness.
3. All That I Am by Anna Funder. Based at least partly on real people and events, Funder's novel concerns four young Germans, all members of the political left, forced to flee to London after Hitler comes to power. The group, which includes the noted poet and World War I veteran Ernst Toller, takes huge risks trying to alert the British government to the emerging Nazi menace. All That I Am is a "masterful" exploration of bravery and betrayal "and of heroism hidden in the most unexpected places," says book blog Goodreads.com. The author, an Australian now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., distinguished herself with the 2004 nonfiction book Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall, notes Tom Nolan of The Wall Street Journal. He labels this debut novel "imaginative, compassionate and convincing" as Funder combines her "proven gift for re-creating the past with the fiction writer's license to reveal emotional truth through artifice." The novel is beautifully written and draws the reader into the lives of people who dealt with "some of the most horrific circumstances" in history, says the blog 5 Minutes for Books.
4. No Less Than Victory by Jeff Shaara. The Battle of the Bulge, one of the war's decisive battles, occurred in the dense Ardennes forest in Belgium, following the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Shaara's novel -- the final of a trilogy that began with The Rising Tide and The Steel Wave -- presents the critical offensive from a variety of viewpoints, including those of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and his American troops, as well as through the eyes of German soldiers and strategists, and Russian combatants. The narrative goes on to the war's final days and the discovery of Nazi concentration camps. "The horror of the Holocaust comes to the fore, and Shaara very deftly walks into this grievous crime with a clinical eye and a compassionate heart," says reviewer Stephen Hubbard of the blog Bookreporter.com. "The result is simply powerful." The blog Man of la Book calls No Less Than Victory the best of Shaara's trilogy, praising the author's ability to keep a complex subject accessible. BookBrowse.com says the book solidifies Shaara's reputation as "this era's most accomplished author of historical military fiction."
5. The Quiet Twin by Dan Vyleta. Soon after war begins, Nazis start turning up murdered near an apartment complex in Vienna, Austria, where Gestapo agents turn to an unassuming physician, Dr. Anton Beer, to help with the forensics of an investigation. Sam Sacks, writing in The Wall Street Journal, compares the novel to Hitchcock's movie Rear Window for the mounting paranoia created "as a rogue's gallery of the doctor's neighbors are introduced, each of whom may be a killer or a Nazi informer. Amid this rich noir atmosphere, a deeper conflict emerges when Dr. Beer becomes the caretaker for a quadriplegic woman and a traumatized orphan," Sacks writes. The conflict between the Nazis' urge to eliminate society's undesirables and the doctor's duty to protect them results in "a tense, well-wrought novel," the reviewer says. "The Quiet Twin may feel at times like a murder mystery or a police procedural, but its approach to genre is too playfully dysfunctional for it to be either," writes John O'Connell in The Guardian. "Let's just say it's a compelling rumination on watching and watchfulness, served up with Nabokovian glee." The initial impression that Vyleta has written an atmospheric period thriller dissolves into a "slow realization that this is a wholly different kind of book, and that nothing is as it first seems," comments Sandra Kasturi of NationalPost.com. Vyleta's deft manipulation of characters and narrative, she says, makes the novel "truly a work of art."
SecondAct asks: So what books are you enjoying? Share your recent reads in the comments field below.
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