This is a guest post from author Janet Beard. She moved to New York from her native East Tennessee to study screenwriting at NYU. She went on to earn an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Her first novel, Beneath the Pines, was published in 2008. Janet has lived and worked in Australia, England, Bos gton, and currently, Columbus, Ohio, where she is teaching writing, raising a daughter, and working on a new novel. Her most recent novel, The Atomic City Girls, is out February 6.
We usually learn about wars in terms of military and political leaders — their strategies, battles, and alliances. Of course, this makes sense. The fighting is where the action is, and the political machinations of war chart the course of history. But I’ve always been drawn to the stories behind these epics — the women left on the homefront or stranded in the path of armies. That fascination inspired me to write The Atomic City Girls, a World War II novel about life in the top-secret factory town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the uranium was enriched to create the first atomic bomb. But of course, my book tells just one story of a war that literally affected the entire world and upended women’s lives across the globe. These six books offer a diverse range of fictional depictions of the female experience of the war.
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
This sharply observed novel illustrates in devastating detail how their imprisonment in internment camps scars a Japanese-American family. The point of view shifts from mother to sister to brother and finally to father, who has been declared a traitor by the government and removed from his family. Otsuka’s descriptions bring their stories to life and force the reader to confront one of the United States’s great historical sins.
Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang
Though these collected stories were popular in Chang’s native China when first published in the 1940s, decades passed before they were translated into English. The title story brings war-torn Hong Kong to life, but even against the most dramatic political backdrop, Chang’s focus is firmly on women and relationships. Though the time and place may seem remote, readers will find universal emotions in these carefully constructed tales.
Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald
An unsparing portrait of a cast of characters working for the BBC in London at the outset of the war, this novel is both funny and moving, though Fitzgerald’s keen sense of irony assures that the writing is never sentimental. Even the most minor characters come to life, as they adjust to both the bureaucracy of the wartime BBC and the realities of life during the Blitz.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
Némirovsky never had a chance to finish what was to be a five-part series of novellas about life in France during the German occupation, because she was arrested for being Jewish and sent to Auschwitz, where she was killed. You might imagine that it would be hard for fiction to live up to such a dramatic backstory, but the two surviving novellas are beautifully written illustrations of a society facing catastrophe.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Atonement spans decades and is about many things, but at its center is a vivid description of life as a wartime nurse in London. The central character, Briony, must come of age quickly when confronted with desperate, dying young men. The descriptions are both brutal and tender and essential to her story.
Enemies: A Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Though it is set just after the war, the characters in this novel cannot escape from their memories of the Holocaust or their survivors’ guilt. Yet they are also stuck in a comic scenario — through a complex series of events, the Jewish protagonist Herman has wound up with three “wives,” his first wife from before the war who he mistakenly assumed dead, the Polish Catholic peasant who hid him from the Nazis and he married out of gratitude, and his mistress and fellow survivor he met upon relocating to New York. The novel is both hilarious and heartbreaking — a potent reminder of the impossibility of ever leaving behind the worst horrors of this war.
Which of these books have you read? Tell us in the comments!