The best books with human stories behind World War Two

Who am I?

My novel Nourishment is loosely based on stories I was told about the war by my parents who lived through it. My mother was a firewoman during the Blitz and my father was in Normandy after the D-Day landings. They married during the war. I wish now I’d written down the stories my parents used to tell me. There was always humour in their stories. My parents could both see the absurdity and the dark comedy that can sometimes be present in wartime situations, especially on the home front, and I hope some of that comes through in Nourishment.


I wrote...

Nourishment

By Gerard Woodward,

Book cover of Nourishment

What is my book about?

Nourishment is set during the Blitz and is the story of Tory Pace, who lives with her elderly mother in southeast London. Her husband Donald has been missing in action for several months and is assumed to be dead. When a letter from him arrives from a prisoner of war camp, she is thrown into turmoil by the unusual request he makes. Her mother has always strongly disapproved of Donald, but this request of his is beyond the pale. No decent woman would comply, and certainly not her daughter. Or would she?

The books I picked & why

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There's No Home

By Alexander Baron,

Book cover of There's No Home

Why this book?

This is an unusual novel in that it shows the lives of British soldiers in Sicily during World War Two, but there is no actual fighting. Instead we see the soldiers’ lives from the inside as they struggle with boredom, frustration, and try to interact with the locals. There are no heroics or sentimental patriotism, instead we see the soldiers in all their humanity, including their weaknesses. Above all it does what all good writing should do, takes you into a vividly believable world of emotion and behavior.  


The Heat of the Day

By Elizabeth Bowen,

Book cover of The Heat of the Day

Why this book?

Beautifully evocative and atmospheric novel set in wartime London concerning a woman, Stella, whose lover is suspected of being a spy. She learns this from another man, Harrison, who offers to protect the lover (Robert) if she takes up with him instead. Thus Stella is pulled between conflicting ideas of love, sex, and politics. Parallel to this is the story of Louie, a flirty working-class girl who has a series of lovers while her husband is away in the army. Again this is a novel that looks at the human stories of love and loyalty which are thrown into turmoil by the background of war.


The End of the Affair

By Graham Greene,

Book cover of The End of the Affair

Why this book?

The Blitz provides a background and a context for this story of an illicit affair. It makes us feel what it would be like to live in a situation where death and destruction are dealt out every day in a random dispensation from enemy bombers, and people can never be certain they will survive into the next day. This novel brings an element of religious faith into this situation, and the characters battle with their moral dilemmas and unanswered questions as much as the V1’s that rain down from the sky.


Fair Stood the Wind for France

By H.E. Bates,

Book cover of Fair Stood the Wind for France

Why this book?

Less involved with the moral and political dilemmas than some of the other novels I’ve listed, this is more of a straightforward adventure story about a British aircrew who survives a crash landing in France and hides out in a farmhouse. Naturally one of them falls for the farmer’s daughter and she helps him on his way to the border. A great romantic adventure but tinged with the real horror and pain of warfare.


The Slaves of Solitude

By Patrick Hamilton,

Book cover of The Slaves of Solitude

Why this book?

Patrick Hamilton has a wonderfully simple and direct style, and is always utterly compelling, no matter if he’s writing about ordinary people going about their daily lives. This wartime novel seems to happen a long way from the war itself, though it is set in Maidenhead, which was far enough away from the capital to be thought safe for evacuees. We spend our time with a wonderfully cliquey and gossipy set of boarding house tenants who constantly compete with each other and have their own little wars and conflicts. Like many of Hamilton’s novels it has a theatrical quality, reading it is almost like watching actors performing on a stage. Indeed, one of the characters is an actor, and theatre provides a note of redemption in this beautifully bleak novel. 


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