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Mary Paulson-Ellis on Books for Remembrance Day

Posted on 4th November 2019 by Mark Skinner

In honour of Remembrance Sunday on Sunday 10 November, Mary Paulson-Ellis, author of the First World War-themed mystery novel The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing, talks us through some powerful and thought-provoking fiction centred around military conflicts and their aftermath.  

There are so many great books written about war that when I was researching my novel, The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing, some of which is set amongst a small group of soldiers at the very end of WW1, I found it hard to know where to begin.

In the end, amongst other things, I read a selection of classics arising from that conflict – from the famous poetry of Rupert Brooke to novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front. These seek to remind us of the horrors of war by taking us to the very heart of the experience. However, with the recent centenary of WW1 I noticed a new wave of books increasingly concerned not just with the frontline, but with the question of how we remember. And why.

Remembrance Sunday originated as Armistice Day on November 11, 1919 to commemorate the soldiers who died in WW1. After WW2 it became Remembrance Sunday and grew to encompass other conflicts as well. But it has not always been the sombre reflection on war and all its losses that we know today.

From the veterans who turned up at the Cenotaph in 1921 wearing pawn tickets on their lapels instead of poppies to protest their poverty, to the dancing and drinking to excess in the local Victory Halls that was common well into the 1930s, the occasion has always been used as an opportunity to remember in several different ways: a constant reckoning with the past.

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

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No modern writer can match Pat Barker’s emotional acuity on the topic of war, and the concluding part of her Regeneration Trilogy binds together many of the themes and character arcs of the preceding two books. A masterpiece of twentieth-century fiction, The Ghost Road resounds with authenticity and intelligence.
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Pat Barker has become our great contemporary chronicler of the human experience of war and its aftermath and The Ghost Road, the third in her classic Regeneration Trilogy, is one of my all time standout novels about WW1. Having followed her anti-hero, Billy Prior, from a hospital for the traumatized to a prison cell for pacifists in Books One and Two, we now meet him on his return to the front in November 1918. We know that Prior and his man are doomed, but cannot fail to hope as they march towards disaster. The WW1 narrative in my own novel was directly inspired by the scenes of Barker’s men billeting and bathing and playing games as they wait for their fatal orders to arrive.

Memorial by Alice Oswald

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Typically iconoclastic and stylistically brave, Memorial strips away the grand heroics of Achilles and Hector to focus on the neglected fates of soldiers on both sides of the Trojan conflict. In reclaiming the narrative of The Iliad for the forgotten war-dead, Duffy breathes new life and force into Homer’s epic, investing it with urgency and relevance to today’s global conflicts.
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There is so much incredible poetry written about war, from Wilfred Owen’s bitter eloquence during WW1 to Carol Ann Duffy’s response one hundred years later. But I have chosen this modern take on an ancient conflict as a must-read to add to that list. Memorial begins with a roll call of names - men once alive, now dead, killed in the seemingly never-ending Trojan War. All that is left of these men are their names, a litany of the lost listed on the page just as the names of the men who died in WW1 are listed on every memorial, in every town, today. But as the poem unfurls Oswald gives each of these men and their deaths proper poetic attention, reminding us to remember them (and all who are lost) as people like us who yearn for nothing more than one final glance at the sun.

The Long Take by Robin Robertson

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Chronicling the drift of a Canadian D-Day veteran across post-war America, Robertson’s Booker-shortlisted tour de force breathtakingly fuses poetry, cinema and the traditions of noir into a moving elegy for a lost age. A staggering achievement.
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This Booker-shortlisted novel is both epic poetry and noir narrative – an unclassifiable yet utterly compelling piece of writing about the aftermath of war. Walker is a WW2 veteran who has made his way to the glitter of Los Angeles via fighting on the beaches of France. He is a man attempting to forget, who cannot help but remember, the war pulsing in his memory like the pop and flare of those flashbulbs used by 1950s press photographers. A piercing, elegant dissection of the terrible grip war holds on those who experience it first hand.

Heimat: A German Family Album by Nora Krug

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Nora Krug’s probing investigation into her family’s past under the Nazi regime is a lyrical, mature exploration of guilt and shame. Rendered all the more poignant by Krug’s evocative sketches, Heimat is a book about home and history, politics and power, and exorcising the demons of a shattering national legacy.
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Another form of remembering is encapsulated in this intriguing graphic novel, presented in the form of a family scrapbook. Krug grew up in Germany in the 1980s learning all about the horrors of the Holocaust, but nothing about what ordinary Germans like her grandfather and great-uncle did during WWII. As an adult, Krug is motivated by a lingering sense of inherited shame about her nationality to begin a search for the truth of their involvement. A heartfelt dig into archives both official and familial raises difficult questions about identity and home and what it really means to forget.

Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS by Azadeh Moaveni

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Painting a complex, disturbing portrait of the myriad young women who abandoned settled, comfortable lives to commit themselves to the cause of Islamic State, Guest House for Young Widows addresses major socio-political themes through a prism of profound humanity. Rich in both personal testimony and penetrating commentary, Moaveni’s book is the definitive work on a hugely significant topic.
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This outstanding piece of reportage offers us a different perspective on war – one which focuses on a modern conflict and the young women who answered its call. Through a series of interviews Moaveni allows us to access the inner thoughts, ambitions, motivations and conflicts of those girls who supported jihad at home or left to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Nuanced and empathetic, it asks us for compassion and understanding first, rather than judgment.

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

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Recreated from fragments of his grandfather’s diaries, War and Turpentine is a stunningly realised feat of fictionalisation whose authentic source material shines through on every page. Tracing a path through a life both foreshadowed and coloured by war, Hertmans’ superb novel is an evocative masterwork destined for classic status.
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This poignant novel returns us to the territory where I began – WW1. It contains at its heart an outstanding piece of recreated memoir based on a diary Hertmans’ grandfather wrote about his experiences with the Belgian army in 1914-18. But Hertmans’ modern reflection on war and memory is so much more than that, taking in everything from his grandfather’s youth of almost Dickensian poverty in Ghent, to memories of an old man crying over a painting in the 1970s. A supremely moving ‘detective’ story about what it means to excavate the past.

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