There are a breed of humans, like myself, who really like war literature. I don’t even really mind what war it is. I love it so much I’ve written about it on my blog, for assignments and currently working on building my academic career around it. World War One, in particular, is my jam.
Before anyone asks, nope, I don’t like gore. I don’t like violence either. I’m the chicken who has to leave the room as soon as it looks like someone might be violently assaulted/murdered on TV or in a movie. I can’t bring myself to finish reading A Game of Thrones coz the violence freaks me out so much…. and it’s a great big HELL NO for watching the show!
So why war then?
I love the camaraderie. I love looking at the effects of trauma. I find the concepts they explore really fascinating. I don’t mind a bit of blood and guts, as long as it’s not for the sake of shock value. I’m fascinated by military nursing history, as well as military history in general.
So here are my top ten picks for those of you who’d like some more books to have a crack at, or those who’d like somewhere to start with the genre.
1. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
I haven’t actually read this totally, but I can guarantee it’s a fabulous read, especially if you’re interested in the reality of a woman’s war experiences. Brittain left her studies at Oxford and worked as a nurse during the war. I believe it’s being made into a mini-series or movie, since my copy has a movie cover (how rude… but it was cheaper!)
2. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
This novel partly follows a shell shocked WWI veteran called Septimus Warren Smith and his wife Rezia, who are trying to find a cure for his mental illness. I think it’s a fantastic depiction of how hard it was for the women to look after their husbands after they returned from the war. It also examines the upper class in London and how they lived, denying their own true happiness for social graces. I REALLY HATED this novel at first, coz my teacher sucked, but now I’m getting a soft spot for it.
3. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
This is an amazing book, from the perspective of a young German soldier called Paul. It’s a startling and poignant novel, with an astonishing amount of detail.
4. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Seigfried Sassoon
Sassoon is mostly known for his trench poetry (there’s lots of it in #9), but his writing is just as phenomenal and brutal. It’s a roller coaster of a “memoir”, and Sassoon pulls no punches. Definitely a great war novel to have a read of. It’s the second in a series, so have a look at the other two to see if you want to read them in order- I didn’t and found I had little trouble.
If you ever pick this particular Penguin Classics edition up, look closely at the cover art- it’s hilarious!
5. A Town Like Alice by Neville Shute
Set during the Second World War in Malaysia, before moving on to Australia, this novel is just flat out fantastic. It has a touch of romance, a dash of action and a staggeringly brutal depiction of the atrocities committed during the Pacific campaign.
6. Bid Me to Live by H.D
H.D and this novel deserve a hell of a lot more respect than they get. I want to bring this book back into people’s attention, because it truly deserves it. It may be tough to get a copy, but I promise you it’s worth it, especially if you’re into Modernist and Imagist writing. Read this in conjunction with Death of a Hero by her then-husband, Richard Aldington, and get both sides of the story (though I don’t think his is half as good…. I’ll rant about that in my review later.)
7. Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
This is a really interesting and kind of cocky memoir by Robert Graves, who went on to write some really great books, like I, Claudius. Here, he tells of his experiences during World War One, and includes some pretty big names, such as Siegfried Sassoon. They had quite a weird relationship, so if you want to see that, I’d recommend reading this and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer together to get the full picture!
8. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
I absolutely adore this novella. At first, if you read my review, I was a bit iffy about it, but since then I’ve come to love it. There’s so much going on in here- class conflict, trauma, death, relationships, forbidden love… all stuffed into 90 pages. For some writers that would be wayyyy too much, but West handles it all flawlessly.
9. The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry
The First World War was an iconic time for poetry writing. I think it’s because the soldiers needed an outlet for their experiences, and poetry gave them the means to make sense of the horror around them. It has been dismissed by critics as rubbish, but I truly think it’s a great way to ease yourself into war lit and to see how the men suffered. So there, Yeats. Get back to your daisies and leave the war poetry to me!
10. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien
“Excuse me? You mean the book with the Hobbits and the Orcs, yeah? That’s not war literature!”
Ahaaaa, my poor, deluded friend. Have a quick look at the link in the title. I’ve explained it all in that post!