The best forgotten (or untold) histories of war

Mary Chamberlain Author Of The Forgotten
By Mary Chamberlain

The Books I Picked & Why

The Silence of the Girls

By Pat Barker

Book cover of The Silence of the Girls

Why this book?

Pat Barker writes superbly about the human costs of war, and in this book she re-tells Homer’s Illiad from the perspective not of the foot soldiers, the cannon fodder of ego-driven politician/heroes, but from the perspective of the vanquished women reduced to slavery and concubinage - Breseis, awarded to Achilles after her city is sacked, fought over by Agamemnon, Andromarche, Hector’s widow, reduced to slavery after her entire family has been slaughtered, Polyxena, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, sacrificed by the Greeks... It is a sensuous, visceral retelling of the story, provocative and evocative. You become part of that ancient world – can smell and taste its effluence - and its brutal and forgotten treatment of women and their struggle for survival

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How We Disappeared

By Jing-Jing Lee

Book cover of How We Disappeared

Why this book?

The story of women trafficked into military brothels is one of the untold histories of war, as is the use of rape as a military weapon. The victims were often too ashamed of their wartime experiences, or too frightened of being accused of collaboration to speak out and as a result, the women’s voices and their traumas are silenced. Jing Jing Lee’s novel is about one such moment – that of Chinese women in Singapore forced to work as prostitutes for the Japanese soldiers. It is a masterpiece of storytelling. Evocative and heart rending, it tells of one woman’s survival and the quest of a child to solve a family mystery. It is beautifully written, exquisitely crafted, utterly compelling.

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Alone in Berlin

By Hans Fallada

Book cover of Alone in Berlin

Why this book?

This is the consummate political thriller. First published in 1947, but not translated into English until 2009, the story (based on a real incident) is set in war-time Berlin. It tells the story of the Quangels, a respectable, working-class couple who, prompted by the death of their only son Otto, distribute hundreds of hand-written post-cards critical of Hitler and the Nazi regime. As the Gestapo close in, it is as if the streets themselves become narrower and more oppressive, and the networks which have surrounded the Quangels, become tighter and more intricately interlinked. The city becomes a metaphor for the claustrophobia and surveillance of life in the Third Reich. Finally, the net tightens... The finale of the novel is devastating… 

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A Long Long Way

By Sebastian Barry

Book cover of A Long Long Way

Why this book?

I think Sebastian Barry is one of the greatest contemporary novelists whose prose unfailingly sings, pirouettes, and enriches. I would recommend all his novels, which take various members of the Dunne or McNulty families over time and place. This particular novel is set in the First World War and follows Willie Dunne as he leaves Dublin to fight for the British, only to find himself caught on the wrong side at the Easter uprising and having to face his own countrymen. It is a brilliant depiction of a young Irish tommy out of his depth in a brutal war, fighting on the side of a country for whom he has mixed loyalties, of the ambivalence and tension of the Irish war of independence, and those caught in its cross hairs.

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A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City

By Anonymous, Philip Boehm

Book cover of A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City

Why this book?

This is the diary of a German journalist, living in Berlin in April-May 1945, describing life in the city as the Nazi regime collapsed and the Red Army advanced on a binge of rape and looting. It’s not easy reading - a portrait not only of how women, faced with horrific abuse, manipulate their oppressors in order to survive, but the exigencies of daily life as civil society breaks down. Its publication history is almost as interesting as the book itself – first published anonymously in the 1950s, its German audience refused to endorse it. Re-published in 2003, after the death of the author, it is now considered a rare masterpiece of reportage. I drew heavily on it for my last novel.

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