The best forgotten (or untold) histories of war

Mary Chamberlain Author Of The Forgotten
By Mary Chamberlain

Who am I?

History and literature have been my two passions in life, and I’ve been lucky enough to have had a career in both. I’m fascinated in particular by history ‘from below,’ the stories of those disenfranchised – by gender, race, class – from the historical record. My non-fiction books, focusing on oral histories of women, and the Caribbean, reflect this. Untold histories continue in my fiction. My novels are set in WWII, telling parts of its history rarely encountered in the official record – of women trafficked and abused, of survival and misogyny, of the long shadow of war trauma on the soldiers who fought and the society that silenced them

I wrote...

The Forgotten

By Mary Chamberlain,

Book cover of The Forgotten

What is my book about?

Berlin, 1945: Twelve-year-old Betty and her sister struggle to survive as the Red Army bombards the city with artillery, and its soldiers rape and terrorise its citizens. John, a young, naïve British conscript is confronted by the devastation of war and its hideous aftermath. London, 1958: Betty and John meet at the inaugural meeting of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. They fall in love, but their affair is abruptly ended when Anatoly, a Russian diplomat, enters their world. They find themselves unlikely and unwilling protagonists in the paranoid world of espionage and nuclear warfare which began, for both of them, but in very different ways, in Berlin in 1945. For neither John, nor Betty, are who they appear to be…

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Silence of the Girls

Why did I love 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

By Pat Barker,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Silence of the Girls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'Chilling, powerful, audacious' The Times

'Magnificent. You are in the hands of a writer at the height of her powers' Evening Standard

There was a woman at the heart of the Trojan War whose voice has been silent - until now. Discover the greatest Greek myth of all - retold by the witness that history forgot . . .

Briseis was a queen until her city was destroyed. Now she is a slave to the man who butchered her husband and brothers. Trapped in a world defined by men, can she survive…

How We Disappeared

By Jing-Jing Lee,

Book cover of How We Disappeared

Why did I love 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.

By Jing-Jing Lee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How We Disappeared as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shortlisted for the 2020 Singapore Literature Prize

Longlisted for the HWA Debut Crown

Singapore, 1942. As Japanese troops sweep down Malaysia and into Singapore, a village is ransacked. Only three survivors remain, one of them a tiny child.

In a neighbouring village, seventeen-year-old Wang Di is bundled into the back of a troop carrier and shipped off to a Japanese military rape camp. In the year 2000, her mind is still haunted by her experiences there, but she has long been silent about her memories of that time. It takes twelve-year-old Kevin, and the mumbled confession he overhears from his…

Alone in Berlin

By Hans Fallada,

Book cover of Alone in Berlin

Why did I love 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… 

By Hans Fallada,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Alone in Berlin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A gripping portrait of life in wartime Berlin and a vividly theatrical study of how paranoia can warp a society gripped by the fear of the night-time knock on the door.

Based on true events, Hans Fallada's Alone In Berlin follows a quietly courageous couple, Otto and Anna Quangel who, in dealing with their own heartbreak, stand up to the brutal reality of the Nazi regime. With the smallest of acts, they defy Hitler's rule with extraordinary bravery, facing the gravest of consequences.

Translated and Adapted by Alistair Beaton (Feelgood, The Trial Of Tony Blair), this timely story of the…

A Long Long Way

By Sebastian Barry,

Book cover of A Long Long Way

Why did I love 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.

By Sebastian Barry,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Long Long Way as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Praised as a "master storyteller" (The Wall Street Journal) and hailed for his "flawless use of language" (Boston Herald), Irish author and playwright Sebastian Barry has created a powerful new novel about divided loyalties and the realities of war.

Sebastian Barry's latest novel, Days Without End, is now available.

In 1914, Willie Dunne, barely eighteen years old, leaves behind Dublin, his family, and the girl he plans to marry in order to enlist in the Allied forces and face the Germans on the Western Front. Once there, he encounters a horror of violence and gore he could not have imagined…

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City

By Anonymous, Philip Boehm (translator),

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

Why did I love 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.

By Anonymous, Philip Boehm (translator),

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked A Woman in Berlin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. "With bald honesty and brutal lyricism" (Elle), the anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. "Spare and unpredictable, minutely observed and utterly free of self-pity" (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland), A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the…

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