The best novels about human relations in the altered reality of wartime

The Books I Picked & Why

After the Party

By Cressida Connolly

Book cover of After the Party

Why this book?

As the daughter of a wartime internee, I was particularly affected by this novel. It is 1938, and socialite Phyllis Forrester is unaware that her family life is soon to be destroyed by circumstance. A privileged wife and mother, Phyllis is politically naïve. There are subtle hints of the darkness to come as she, along with her kin, becomes increasingly involved with Oswald Mosley’s political party. When war breaks out and Phyllis is interned, she endures her downfall and imprisonment with equanimity. The book carries a quiet, sad sense of regret as she tries and fails to pick up the post-war threads of her former life. There is no going back.

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The Secret Purposes

By David Baddiel

Book cover of The Secret Purposes

Why this book?

Jewish internment in Britain is a little-known aspect of WW2. Baddiel based this novel on his grandfather's experience as a German-Jewish refugee to Britain, fleeing Nazi persecution. It is an ironic story of a man interned on the Isle of Man as an “enemy alien,” when war breaks out. Baddiel’s excellent story-telling led me to write a scene in my own family-inspired novel; between a character based on my father, also interned on the Isle of Man, and a Jewish refugee he encounters in the camp. They meet in the potato fields and, after some bristling, form a bond.

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By Michael Ondaatje

Book cover of Warlight

Why this book?

Since my own novel is set partly in post-war England, I was drawn to Ondaatje’s Warlight, which begins in 1945 London as the city is recovering from brutal bombing. Another hook for me was the youthful characters; my book is also populated with war-confused children. Ondaatje’s narrator, 14-year-old Nathaniel, recalls his youth with the benefit of adult wisdom. He and his sister Rachel are abandoned by their parents to the care of some eccentric and slightly dangerous characters. Their teen years are marked by many mysterious events and experiences, only beginning to clarify in retrospect. Do we ever know what’s really happening?

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By Pat Barker

Book cover of Noonday

Why this book?

An accumulation of memories haunt and inform Noonday, a novel that stands alone as the third in a trilogy spanning both world wars. I particularly love Barker’s avoidance of sentimentality. She is an honest writer who digs deep and gives no easy solutions as she follows a cast of characters who originally met as students at the Slade School of Art in London. Elinor, who is central, still suffers from the death of her brother Toby in the Great War. Barker’s skillful evocation of the past gives weight and resonance to every word, reminding the reader of the increasing complexity of character formation with life’s most intense and sometimes tragic experiences. 

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The Remains of the Day

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Book cover of The Remains of the Day

Why this book?

This novel devastated me upon first reading as I recognized the dangers of political naivete as a fatal flaw, and the extent of such naivete in Britain until Churchill came to power. The novel is set in the era of prewar “appeasement.” Stevens is butler to Lord Darlington, to whom he is unquestioningly loyal. Only in retrospect does Stevens realize that his employer was a Nazi sympathizer, and that he has wasted his life in service to such a man, to the extent that he fails to marry the woman he loves, and is absent from his father’s bedside as he dies. His ignorance and misplaced loyalty have trumped all. Nevertheless, he vows to live out “the remains of the day.” A brilliant evocation of shifting wartime politics.

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