The best novels about family secrets, trauma, and loss in wartime

Janet Dean Knight Author Of The Peacemaker: A Novel
By Janet Dean Knight

Who am I?

When I was given a First World War soldier’s wallet containing family souvenirsa handwritten letter, a wedding photograph—I realised that it represented the story of my grandmother’s first marriage to a young man who died in the battle of the Somme in 1916. Brought up with my mother’s version of the story, I set out to find what truths I could. What I discovered is that there's no such thing as truth, only versions of what happened, and I wove these into a fictional narrative that tries to capture the experiences of families traumatized by war and explores how they made their peace despite the conflicts and tragedies they experienced.


I wrote...

The Peacemaker: A Novel

By Janet Dean Knight,

Book cover of The Peacemaker: A Novel

What is my book about?

As the war to end all wars is about to be followed by another, a young woman finds her life taking the same tragic course as her mother’s. One night in the summer of 1938 Violet Lowther’s mother Peggy is dying, her father Ellis is drunk in the pub, and Violet’s life is being ruined behind a dance hall in Barnsfield by a young miner who doesn’t look like Clark Gable after all. 

The Peacemaker is a story of buried family secrets and the search for understanding from one generation to the next, as well as between men and women. Set at a pivotal moment in history it exposes how, in hiding our darkest experiences, the same human tragedies occur over and over again.

The books I picked & why

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The Night Watch

By Sarah Waters,

Book cover of The Night Watch

Why this book?

The Night Watch is a chilling, atmospheric book that shows us the lives of a group of Londoners through the air raids of the 1940s. The story is told backwards from a point shortly after the war and reveals the motivations and characters of the story slowly, painfully, and with great care. A group of lesbian women, a woman entangled with a married man, and a young man punished for his part in a desperate pact: their personal stories are played out against a backdrop of fear and destruction. Perhaps my favourite of all Sarah Water’s fabulous novels, The Night Watch is so intricately and cleverly constructed it takes your breath away.

The Night Watch

By Sarah Waters,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Night Watch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

I thought everything would change, after the war. And now, no one even mentions it. It is as if we all got together in private and said whatever you do don't mention that, like it never happened.

It's the late 1940s. Calm has returned to London and five people are recovering from the chaos of war.

In scenes set in a quiet dating agency, a bombed-out church and a prison cell, the stories of these five lives begin to intertwine and we uncover the desire and regret that has bound them together.

Sarah Waters's story of illicit love and everyday…


Regeneration

By Pat Barker,

Book cover of Regeneration

Why this book?

The first of Pat Barker’s masterful Regeneration Trilogy won the Booker Prize in 1995 for its absorbing and sensitive study of the impact of war on the minds of the men who fought. Based on a real-life relationship between army psychologist W.H.R Rivers and the poet Siegfried Sassoon, Barker really conveys the horrors of war and explores human relationships in this intense book which I found immersive and emotionally draining. I like books that make me feel deeply, sometimes uncomfortably and this dark and graphic study makes a powerful anti-war statement.

Regeneration

By Pat Barker,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Regeneration as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Calls to mind such early moderns as Hemingway and Fitzgerald...Some of the most powerful antiwar literature in modern English fiction."-The Boston Globe

The first book of the Regeneration Trilogy-a Booker Prize nominee and one of Entertainment Weekly's 100 All-Time Greatest Novels.

In 1917 Siegfried Sasson, noted poet and decorated war hero, publicly refused to continue serving as a British officer in World War I. His reason: the war was a senseless slaughter. He was officially classified "mentally unsound" and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital. There a brilliant psychiatrist, Dr. William Rivers, set about restoring Sassoon's "sanity" and sending him back…


Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson,

Book cover of Life After Life

Why this book?

Amongst my favourite books—in my top twenty perhaps—Life After Life is a sweeping drama that spans both World Wars and centres on Ursula, a girl who grows up in a lively dynamic family, as world events spin around her. The book asks the question what if we could have more than one chance at life? How would the world change if we hadn’t been born? Structurally complex, Life After Life is so well written it draws you along and absorbs you with its wonderful characterization of Ursula and her family, so much so that you fully accept the alternative life scenarios that the author offers. 

Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked Life After Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What if you could live again and again, until you got it right?

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.

Does Ursula's apparently infinite number…


The Lie

By Helen Dunmore,

Book cover of The Lie

Why this book?

Daniel is a survivor of the First World War who mourns the death of his best friend Frederic and is haunted by disturbing visions of him and flashes of battle. Returning to Cornwall, Daniel’s mother has died so he moves in with Mary, an old woman. He also reconnects with Felicia, Frederic’s sister who is still living in the large family house Daniel visited as a child. The atmosphere of the book is vivid, oppressive, and conveys the horrors of war in a human, sympathetic context. Passages from the book remain vivid in my mind several years after reading it and the whole story has a filmic quality and beautiful Cornish landscapes

The Lie

By Helen Dunmore,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lie as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A British World War I veteran returns to Cornwall in this “enthralling novel of love and devastating loss” from an Orange Prize winner (Good Housekeeping).
 
Cornwall, 1920: Infantry officer Daniel Branwell has returned to his coastal hometown after the war. Unmoored and alone, Daniel spends his days in solitude, quietly working the land. However, all is not as it seems in the peaceful idylls of the countryside; and although he has left the trenches, Daniel cannot escape his dreadful past.
 
As former friendships reignite, Daniel is drawn deeper and deeper into the tangled traumas of his youth and the memories…


Before the Fall

By Juliet West,

Book cover of Before the Fall

Why this book?

The author of Before the Fall is inspired by the true events of a human tragedy reported in London at the end of the First World War. Juliet West tells the story of Hannah and Daniel who meet and fall in love whilst Hannah’s husband is fighting in France. Hannah has two children and when her affair with Daniel takes a dramatic turn, they decide on a course of action that ends in tragedy for all concerned. I was intrigued by the true stories behind this novel, which made the desperate choices of Hannah and Daniel so much more poignant.

Before the Fall

By Juliet West,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Before the Fall as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A compelling, moving tale of a love affair, set in the East End during World War 1 and inspired by an unforgettable true story.

A great war.
A powerful love.
An impossible choice.

I think the war is everywhere: in the rain, in the river, in the grey air that we breathe. It is a current that runs through all of us. You can't escape the current; either you swim with it, or you go under.

1916. Across the channel, the Great War rages; in London's East End, with her husband away fighting, Hannah Loxwood struggles to hold everything together.…


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