The best fiction about women’s experiences of World War II

The Books I Picked & Why

When the Emperor Was Divine

By Julie Otsuka

Book cover of When the Emperor Was Divine

Why this book?

This sharply observed novel illustrates in devastating detail how their imprisonments in internment camps scar a Japanese-American family. The point of view shifts from mother to sister to brother and finally to father, who has been declared a traitor by the government and removed from his family. Otsuka’s descriptions bring their stories to life and force the reader to confront one of the United States’ great historical sins. 

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Love in a Fallen City

By Eileen Chang, Karen S. Kingsbury

Book cover of Love in a Fallen City

Why this book?

Though these collected stories were popular in Chang’s native China when first published in the 1940s, decades passed before they were translated into English. The title story brings war-torn Hong Kong to life, but even against the most dramatic political backdrop, Chang’s focus is firmly on women and relationships. Though the time and place may seem remote, readers will find universal emotions in these carefully constructed tales. 

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Human Voices

By Penelope Fitzgerald

Book cover of Human Voices

Why this book?

An unsparing portrait of a cast of characters working for the BBC in London at the outset of the war, this novel is both funny and moving, though Fitzgerald’s keen sense of irony assures that the writing is never sentimental. Even the most minor characters come to life, as they adjust to both the bureaucracy of the wartime BBC and the realities of life during the Blitz. 

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Suite Française

By Irene Nemirovsky

Book cover of Suite Française

Why this book?

Nemirovsky never had a chance to finish what was to be a five-part series of novellas about life in France during the German occupation, because she was arrested for being Jewish and sent to Auschwitz, where she was killed. You might imagine that it would be hard for fiction to live up to such a dramatic backstory, but the two surviving novellas are beautifully written illustrations of a society facing catastrophe.

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Enemies: A Love Story

By Isaac Bashevis Singer

Book cover of Enemies: A Love Story

Why this book?

Though it is set just after the war, the characters in this novel cannot escape from their memories of the Holocaust or guilt at having survived. Yet they are also stuck in a comic scenario—through a complex series of events, the Jewish protagonist Herman has wound up with three “wives,” his first wife from before the war who he mistakenly assumed dead, the Polish Catholic peasant who hid him from the Nazis and he married out of gratitude, and his mistress and fellow survivor he met upon relocating to New York. The novel is both hilarious and heart-breaking—a potent reminder of the impossibility of ever leaving behind the worst horrors of this war.   

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