The best books on finding a new normal after World War I

Lesley Glaister Author Of Blasted Things
By Lesley Glaister

Who am I?

I am the prize-winning author of sixteen novels, most recently Little Egypt, The Squeeze, and Blasted Things. I teach creative writing at the University of St Andrews. I live in Edinburgh and am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. I’m a novelist and student of human nature. I love to work out what motivates people, how and why they make choices, their coping mechanisms, and how they act under pressure. Before I begin a novel set in the past, I read as much fiction written at the time as I can find, as well as autobiography and history. In this way, I attempt to truffle down into the actions and impulses of individuals, both performative and deeply interior, that characterise the spirit of the era that I’m writing.


I wrote...

Blasted Things

By Lesley Glaister,

Book cover of Blasted Things

What is my book about?

It’s 1920. The First World War is over and people, reeling from the shock, horror, and disruption, are trying to work out how to live in such changed times. Clementine, who volunteered as a nurse at the Front, tries to put her horrific experiences behind her. She settles for a life of conventional middle-class respectability as a doctor’s wife, and mother – until she meets Vincent. He’s an injured veteran also struggling to find himself in a war-shattered society. Clementine is drawn to Vincent by a dangerous and compelling kind of recognition, while opportunistic Vincent sees her as a chance of a better life. But the relationship that ensues cannot – and does not – end well. 

In Blasted Things, I’ve explored not only the obvious effects of war (both positive and negative): the horror and the excitement: the trauma and the new freedom; the loss and the widening of horizons; but more importantly the deeper ramifications: the subtle twisting of psyches, distortions of personality, of attitudes overturned and the confusing growth of new desires.

The books I picked & why

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Testament of Youth

By Vera Brittain,

Book cover of Testament of Youth

Why this book?

This autobiographical study of Vera Brittain’s life in the time leading up to the Great War, through it and projecting into the inter-war years, brilliantly demonstrates the enormous changes that were wrought by the brutal and world-shaping conflict. Brittain is a fiercely intelligent, politically aware narrator as well as a likable, wry, honest, and vulnerable human being, and it is the combination of these traits which makes reading her account of the times such an intensely involving and emotional experience. Her book gives a real sense of what it was like to be a woman at the time, shielded by society from the dangers that all her beloved men-folk – fiancé, brother, friends – were sent to face. Grieving and determined to play her part, she gave up her (hard-won) place at Oxford to enroll as a VAD, and her experiences nursing men at the front changed her forever. This book, which I have read several times, was both an inspiration for, and central to my research for, Blasted Things.

Testament of Youth

By Vera Brittain,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An autobiographical account of a young nurse's involvement in World War I.


The Return of the Soldier

By Rebecca West,

Book cover of The Return of the Soldier

Why this book?

Chris, a shell-shocked soldier who suffers from amnesia, returns from the front expecting life to be as he remembered. But he’s lost fifteen years of his memory and doesn’t recognise his wife Kitty, is horrified by how his cousin Jenny has aged, and longs only for Margaret, the girl he loved all those years ago. Despairing for his sanity, Kitty and Jenny summon Margaret, sure he’ll come to his senses when he sees her, only to find that he still adores her, dowdy, careworn, and poor as she is. The war is only glancingly mentioned here but its loss and damage aches between the lines. Told by Jenny, who loves Chris but starts to see Kitty in a new light, the dreadful snobbishness of the times is laid clear. The Return of the Soldier is a brief novel, romantic and witty, moving and bitter – I devoured it in one sitting.

The Return of the Soldier

By Rebecca West,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A shell-shocked officer returns from the chaos of World War I to the tranquility of his stately English home — leaving his memory of the preceding 15 years amid the muddy trenches at the front lines. Anxiously awaiting the soldier's return are the three women who love him best: the perceptive cousin who narrates his story, the beautiful wife he fails to recognize, and the tender first love of his youth.
This remarkable war novel, Rebecca West's first work of fiction, depicts neither battles nor battlefields. Originally published in 1918, it takes a searching look at the far-reaching effects of…


In the Mountains

By Elizabeth von Arnim,

Book cover of In the Mountains

Why this book?

Immediately after the war, a bereaved woman returns alone to her family’s summer home in the Swiss Alps. It is a beautiful place, but she’s terrified of the memories it stirs, and haunted by the ghosts of those she’s lost. When a couple of lost English widows happen upon her house, she seizes eagerly on their company and the distraction they provide. She invites them to stay, and quickly forms an intense and rather desperate attachment to them. This novel gives a fine evocation of a time when so many felt displaced, when it was as if the tectonic plates of civilised existence had shifted the safe ground from beneath their feet. We see the journey of (eventually) a quartet of bereaved and war-shattered people towards a sort of healing, wholeness, and peace – as well as a new tolerance towards the differences of others.

In the Mountains

By Elizabeth von Arnim,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In the Mountains as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the Mountains is a book by Elizabeth von Arnim. An English woman eludes confusing personal troubles in London and seeks shelter at her lodge amongst the Swiss Alps.


The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age

By Juliet Nicolson,

Book cover of The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age

Why this book?

Enormously useful to me while researching for Blasted Things, was The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War. Taking us through chapters entitled feelingly with nouns: from Wound and Shock, through Resignation, and finally to Hope, Trust and Acceptance, Nicolson provides a chronological account of the period between the 1918 Armistice and the burial of the Unknown Soldier in 1920. It’s addictively readable, the history enriched by the recounted experiences of ordinary people from all walks of life, giving a rounded sense of the time, filled with detail about culture, music, the movies, fashion, class and so much more. This book provides a marvellously concrete and detailed account of the sensibility of a short and fascinatingly complex period.

The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age

By Juliet Nicolson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Armistice Day 1918 dawns with great joy for victorious Britain, but the nation must confront the carnage war has left in its wake. In The Great Silence, Juliet Nicolson looks through the prism of daily life to narrate the rich but unknown history of the slow healing Britain undergoes in the two years following that day.

The two-year anniversary of the Armistice brings some closure at last: the remains of a nameless soldier, dug up from a French battlefield and escorted to London in a homecoming befitting a king, are laid to rest in glory in the Tomb of the…


Antic Hay

By Aldous Huxley,

Book cover of Antic Hay

Why this book?

Set in London in the early 1920s, Huxley’s Antic Hay follows a cast of young bohemian and artistic characters, all affected in various ways by the Great War, as they search for SOMETHING to give meaning to their lives. London has changed, the world has changed, and they are lost. Cripplingly shy Theodore Gumbril, the main character, (inventor of Gumbril's Patent Small-Clothes, trousers which contain an inflatable cushion in the seat) searches for love, and meaning, in the shattered society following the end of the war. His search for love – including the donning of a false, confidence-boosting beard, makes for an absurd kind of comedy. Antic Hay is a savage satire, a switchback of emotions, swooping between humour and despair – though the slight plot does sometimes get rather side-lined by intellectual discussions and I admit to skipping the odd page. However, it gives an excellent flavour of the mind-set of what is sometimes known as the ‘Lost Generation’.

Antic Hay

By Aldous Huxley,

Why should I read it?

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


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in World War 1, veterans, and World War 2?

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