There is certainly no shortage of World War Two literature out there. In fact, it is amongst the most popular subject matters in popular and high fiction at the moment. But what is it that fascinates both readers and writers alike to one of the most horrifying and evil times in human history? I posit that the concept of genocide and what happened to the human race during that period almost seems stranger than fiction – almost like, how can this possibly be true? How can this be something that humans have done to fellow humans in recent history? So, by fictionalising the accounts, it makes it seem like it has not happened and that we are lost in a story world. Effectively, we are distancing ourselves from harsh realities of what has happened to others. By saying this, I am by no means belittling the Holocaust and its survivors. The fact that these events did happen and they affected real humans makes these stories more than fiction – they are a representation of the dangers of humankind and that is what fascinates us so much about this time in history.
The interesting thing about these horrific events are that they are the subject matter for such a diverse range of readers. John Boyne’s 2006 novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, was written with intended audiences of 8-14 year olds. This made for a unique book in the marketplace at that time, in that it was written in a way that both children and adults could read this book and experience it in different ways; although, the tragic ending was inevitable. The clues to what was truly happening throughout the book (such as the referral “Out-With” throughout the book, as well as the titular pyjamas) may have been missed by more immature readers; however, its striking simplicity is what makes this book such a masterclass in allegory and fable. The 2008 film adaptation, I found, had less success in conveying this. By writing through the voice of a young boy, we truly did experience the innocent face of the events of the Holocaust, and we saw things from an entirely different perspective. This, of course, is the great advantage that books have over film – the ability to see through the character’s eyes and hear his thoughts. I remember reading this book when I was a young teen, almost in a single sitting (such as this small, 224 page novel lends itself to doing) – and although it simplifies the events to convey the childlike innocence, it is certainly one of the better and more diverse examples of WW2 literature.
Another interesting example of this is the highly acclaimed and praised debut novel from Australian author Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (2005). Although this was written more with an adult audience in mind, it has, in time, shifted to a similar audience view as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Although there are distinct differences: Zusak’s novel is definitely to be considered as a young adult novel rather than an older children’s reader; and the allegory is nowhere near as subtle. In The Book Thief, you are well aware of exactly what is going on and there is very little softening for the sake of younger readers involved. The reader is made well aware of this from the outset when we are introduced to our narrator – Death. I think that it is this unique narrative experience that has made this book so well received. In the book, we are told that Death is not evil but rather the weapons and diseases that bring Death about. The voice of Death is intended to be benevolent and intelligent, as we are told the story of Liesel Meminger, and her adoptive family.
Another reason why I feel that this book has done so well is that it appeal to booklovers. The use of books, writing and literature throughout the novel means that those who have picked up the book and love books will love the relationship depicted between Liesel, her Papa Hans and the fugitive Max. The bringing together of the characters through books is sure to speak to many, especially when it is depicted in a time when books were considered to be so volatile and symbolised so much more than the physical objects themselves. The Book Thief, in this respect, explores much more than the typical WW2 novel, in that it deals with the horrors of what was happening to oppressed peoples, but also the fragility of the human condition when basic pleasures and necessities such as books are taken away or severely limited.
However, in this sense, I did feel that this book drove a very hard message and was perhaps a touch too heavy-handed in its depiction. Perhaps I need to reread this book as an adult to bring to it a new perspective, but I found that it was a touch predictable and overly symbolic rather than focusing on just telling the story. That’s certainly not to say that I hated the book, but I wouldn’t rant and rave about how much I loved it either. In my opinion, it was just a book that I’ve read. But everybody else seems to just adore it! Another one of those books that left me on the periphery of popular opinion.
Enter All The Light We Cannot See. Published in 2014, it was almost immediately set upon by the literary crowd and lauded as one of the “must reads”. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015, this book was everything I wished that The Book Thief could have been. Granted, this book was not written with young adults in mind. The turns of phrase and imagery are just exquisite, and the mastery of prose writing is on show in Doerr’s brilliant novel. The book is based centrally around two key characters: Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who is forced to flee France with her father during Nazi occupation, and Werner, a reluctant member of the Hitler Youth. For the most part of the book, their stories run parallel and it is not until a singular moment that they converge. The story is heartbreaking and enchanting, and, in spite of the undoubtedly heavy subject matter with which it deals, it is remarkably easy to read. In this sense, it opens the ideal audience to both readers of general fiction and literary fiction, as it is all but guaranteed that each reader will take something away from the book. Of course, this is only a very crude summary of what is truly a remarkable book!
And now for something completely different…I was recommended The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah by a very enthusiastic customer who praised it as one of the most heart-breaking and beautiful books she’d ever read. On the back of reading The Nightingale, she wanted to come in and buy everything else Kristin Hannah had ever written! Published in 2015, this book is another take on the World War Two landscape, in the fact that it details life back at home in France for one of two sisters. Vianne is a schoolteacher and mother of one when her husband is drafted and subsequently captured. She then must survive many horrors of war away from the battlefield – French Occupation, rations, keeping her daughter healthy as well as, crucially, the billeting of SS officers in her home. Her younger sister, Isabelle, is much more impetuous and headstrong, decides to offer her services to the frontline of the war. She joins the French Resistance and is tasked with distributing anti-Nazi Propaganda, as well as helping downed Allied airmen escape persecution and return home. She earns the codename “The Nightingale” and becomes a target of the Nazis.
Told in retrospect from one of the sisters’ perspective as an elderly woman in the 1990s, this book is, similarly to All The Light We Cannot See, foreshadowed consistently as ending in heartbreak. Although there are hints of hope throughout, much like the tale of the War itself, it is destined to end in only one way. In spite of some beautiful and heart-rendering moments in the text, in terms of whether or not I can deem this an “enjoyable” read the jury is still out. The first half of the book, certainly, felt a touch forced at times and seemed a bit unbelievable (in the not very good sense of the word!). Also, some of the relationships seems a little bit contrived and hurried – Isabelle and Gaet, a fellow Resistance member, seemed to have an “Insta-Love” relationship, which seems improbable. Although, in retrospect, this could be conveying the nature of time and relationships in times of war – they desperately chose love in the face of so much powerful hate. It’s a 3.5 star read for me, but certainly an interesting and different take on the World War 2 literature trope.
I’ve mentioned my love for Jodi Picoult on this blog before – she’s such a versatile writer that it was inevitable that she would turn her hand to World War Two literature. Admittedly, when she published The Storyteller in 2013, it did come as a bit of a surprise that she was writing in this area. She is normally the queen of contemporary issue writing, so the fact that she was turning back and writing historical fiction seemed to be a bit of a departure for her. I was worried in the initial part of the novel that it meant that Jodi had lost her touch in seeking to write as part of a trendy genre (horrible, but true) – it felt like it was a bit forced and stiff at times. However, the second and third parts of the novel completely changed my perspective. Yes, it was and continues to be an on trend area to explore in fiction, but Jodi’s writing style and evocation are of the highest class. I was completely moved in the telling of the stories of Minka and Joseph and, in true Picoult style, the shock ending has to be read to be believed.
I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the modern world and the haunting of the past in The Storyteller, and, in particular, how it appealed to all five of the senses. As our main character, Sage, is a baker, the reader can really smell all of the luscious scents of the challah and bread baking. This is powerful in the way that the senses are evoked in Picoult’s writing of the Holocaust – “the smell of fear” so to speak. Although there can be no doubt that the world in which Sage is living is much more appealing, there can be no denying that she is free from trauma and horror. This can be seen in the physical scars she bears, as well as traces of family history that run throughout her internalising of events. Whilst it’s certainly not my favourite of Picoult’s novels (and the title that holds that honour changes on a daily basis), it’s an interesting take on what we’re investigating in this blog!
In a similar way to how Picoult juxtaposes the modern world and the world of Auschwitz, a relatively new release from Australian fiction newcomer Liam Pieper really moved me recently. Also told in split-narrative perspective, The Toymaker (2016) is set simultaneously in modern-day Melbourne and follows Adam Kulakov, a successful businessman riding on the back of generational success with a wife, child and many mistresses; and also in 1944, and follows Adam’s grandfather Arkady, and his harrowing experiences in Auschwitz. Truth be told, Arkady’s grandson is a gigantic sleaze. It is because of his actions that I have experienced many readers giving up on this book within the first couple of chapters due to his graphic actions. My advice is, emphatically, to continue reading this book – as you will be infinitely rewarded with how it circles back around and how everything becomes crystal clear in the end. This was one of those books that I wanted to start reading again as soon as I had finished the final page! The ending just made the whole book make complete sense in a way that is a marvel of structure.
The accounts of Auschwitz are undoubtedly distressing – although the modern reader is familiar with the occurrences, it does not mean we are desensitized to the scenes of human cruelty. The Nazi experiments were a scourge on humanity. But it is amongst this horror that we take the novel’s title and purpose – Arkady made wooden toys to comfort the children upon whom unforeseen cruelties are being unleashed. The joy that it brought these children are what inspired the business model that has supported the family since their arrival in Australia. But it is also what Adam stands to lose if he continues to manage the business in the haphazard and careless manner that he has been.
One of the finer Australian novels to grace the market, I’d be sure to persist with this book as a shining example of the power of what Holocaust literature can bring to our collective perspectives on humanity and our relationship with the world. By looking back to the monster of history, we can be sure to learn something about the world in which we are currently living and how we can live in it in a way that is respectful and tolerant – this is the power of historical fiction.