The fiction of war

Can fiction portray fact without sounding as if the research undertaken is being shoehorned in, and is, therefore, a distraction from the storyline?

I’ve never wished to read factual books about war; strategies, weaponry,  battles, how they were won or lost.  Partly I fear the danger of glorifying war even though I know that those who give such accounts wouldn’t wish to do so.  It is argued that analysing the reasons for the conduct of war can make antagonists wary of starting a conflict.  I think we can say that the jury is out on that one.

However I do think that we should be confronted with the effects of war on people, soldiers and civilians, in order to understand the horror, the bravery and have compassion.  Whether this makes war less likely I would like to believe, but once again there is little evidence that this is the case.

Four books that I have read in the past year gave excellent evocations of living through war, the devastation and the aftermath; each are fictional accounts of periods of the Second World War.  They all give us that understanding, bringing light to bear on aspects of the time, both good and bad.

In Life After Life we live through Teddy’s vivid experiences as a bomber pilot; the intricate details of the raids and effects on him and those around him are richly related.  The reader is entirely bound up in his thoughts and feelings, with no doubt that one is reading truth. The list of books researched is by then irrelevant to the reader.

Elizabeth is Missing deals with an elderly woman suffering loss of memory with Altzheimer’s disease. Here it is the aftermath of war; the devastation of the blitz, the black market, women missing and the consequences.  Again background facts which create a rich narrative.

Unexploded is set at the beginning of the war; the deadly waiting before the expected invasion. The reader is caught up in a woman’s horror of what her husband has buried in the garden, the whole town’s fear during that hot summer of 1940.  So many facts immerge as part of the story; anti-semitism, the treatment of people regarded as enemy aliens, as well as the preparations for withstanding the enemy.

All the Light We Cannot See takes us to St Malo at the beginning and end of the war, the German’s invading and the Americans retaking the town. We learn of the treatment of young German boys being trained to become soldiers, a brutal affair.  In parallel a young blind French girl is guarding a valuable stone searched for by a fanatical Nazi officer who is ‘collecting’ valuable property for Hitler.  An uncle suffers from the effects of fighting in the 1st World War, the Resistance is implacable.  It is the magic of radio transmission that links the young people.

So much learnt but in ways which never disrupt the fiction.

In HHhH a book telling of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi security chief, known as the butcher of Prague, the writer is at great pains to make sure that he is giving the facts, that fiction is not creeping into his retelling. This takes it from being a text of war to a novel which discusses, and amusingly struggles with, the problems of sticking to what is known and verifiable without embellishment.

All these are books that I have enjoyed enormously, engaged in fiction which shows rather than tells the true facts. I would recommend them all and will keep to read again.



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