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War of Words: The Best Second World War Novels

Posted on 4th September 2019 by Mark Skinner

To mark the anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War we have assembled a list of twenty great novels that, in one way or another, embody the unique nature of the six year long conflict.

Eighty years ago this September the world was plunged into a war that irrevocably changed the path of history forever. It cost the most lives, destroyed the most cities, towns and villages, and displaced the most people in modern history. It spawned the Cold War between the twin superpowers of the United States of America and the Soviet Union, and hastened the pace of decolonisation in the third world. And it was fought against a regime whose almost unimaginable barbarism and inhumanity must serve as a grim warning to contemporary and future leaders and societies.

The novels assembled below vary hugely in their tone, message and style, but all of them share an ability to bring this dramatic period of history to vivid life. Whether taut tales of derring-do and heroism in theatres of war, peerless evocations of the home front, or devastating accounts of internment and concentration camp, these books all speak to a time of immense cruelty and immense courage, when lives were constantly in the balance and freedom hung by the thinnest of threads. 

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Explosive, subversive, wild and funny, Joseph Heller's bestselling novel is a hilarious and tragic satire on military madness, and the tale of one man's efforts to survive it. An absurdist condemnation of armed conflict and a rallying cry against the arbitrary authority of those in power, Catch 22 is one of the landmarks of twentieth-century fiction.
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A bewitching novel that perfectly captures the nihilistic romance of London during the Blitz, when normal rules crumbled in the face of potential annihilation, The Heat of the Day places a love triangle at the heart of a deadly game of wartime espionage. Suffused with faded glamour, this sensual noir stands as a richly evocative novel of war, desire and betrayal.
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Claustrophobic, intense and relentlessly realistic, Buccheim’s underwater masterpiece captures better than any other novel the boredom, confusion and terror of being in a submarine under constant threat. A host of finely wrought characters are caught in the ultimate sealed environment, as Das Boot’s oppressive brilliance expertly escalates the unbearable tension.
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The heart-rending origin story of Nemirovsky’s unfinished masterpiece sometimes threatens to overshadow the staggering achievement of the work itself. Collated from two separate but connected narratives of French life under the Nazi occupation, Suite Francaise is a triumph of memorable characterisation and evocative imagery, mercifully rescued from literary obscurity.
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Rich in irony and suspense, The Bridge on the River Kwai examines the hubris and pragmatism of a trio of prisoners of war forced to construct a bridge for the Burma-Siam railway. Combining weighty themes of class, pride and nationalism with a compelling character-driven thriller, Boulle’s cult classic is a highly skilful work of narrative synthesis.
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The king of the wry, realistic espionage thriller turns his attention to an alternate history of the Second World War in this enthralling account of what British life could have been like under Nazi rule. At its heart a ripping good spy yarn, SS-GB also scores with its credible, deftly rendered atmosphere and typically acute characterisation.
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One of the towering achievements of twenty-first century literature, All the Light We Cannot See paints a transcendent picture of love and companionship during the Nazi occupation of France. Through luminous prose and dextrous characterisation, Doerr crafts a modern epic and a sublime story for the ages.
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An ambitious dual narrative set during the fall of France in 1940 and early 1990s’ Berlin, Edugyan’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel details the disappearance of a black, German cabaret artist and the secrets and revelations that follow in his wake. Richly atmospheric and intensely vivid, Half Blood Blues subtly interrogates the vagaries of war and the nature of redemption.
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The resuscitation of Vasily Grossman’s prequel to the monumental Life and Fate is a testament to meticulous research and translation. A peerless invocation of the brutal battle of Stalingrad, the novel is kaleidoscopic in its treatment of the inhabitants and soldiers caught in the wholesale carnage of one of the most devastating encounters in military history.
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Deriving its power from the authenticity of its narrative, Evelyn Waugh’s fictionalised account of his own wartime experiences in Southern Europe has become arguably his most revered work. Expertly comingling comedy with pathos, the Sword of Honour trilogy is as rounded a view of the conflict as is possible to imagine.
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Three days in the life of a small Ukrainian town are rendered with stunning emotional detail in Seiffert’s account of survival in the face of Nazi atrocities. Cast in spare, fragile prose, A Boy in Winter resounds with hope amidst the darkness.
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Disturbing, harrowing and yet also deeply inspiring in its depiction of humanity and moral action, Schindler’s Ark holds a special place in the twentieth-century literary canon. The winner of 1982’s Booker Prize endures as a compassionate and thoughtful account of heroism in the face of a barbaric regime and its horrifying ‘final solution.’
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Winner of the Golden Man Booker, The English Patient is an emotionally devastating reflection on love, betrayal and the shifting sands of memory. Centred on a nurse and her wounded charges in an Italian villa at the close of World War II, Ondaatje’s lyrical masterpiece has attained a literary significance that few modern novels can match.
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Told in reverse chronology, Waters’ masterful drama examines the effects of the Second World War in shaping the inner and exterior lives of those who lived through it. Wonderfully redolent of the austerity and listlessness of the 1940s and the war’s immediate aftermath, The Night Watch tracks the journeys of a quartet of Londoners backwards through time with immense flair and compassion.
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Profoundly moving and superbly structured, Styron’s great novel of the Holocaust asks searching questions about the desperation of war and the decisions made under extreme circumstances. Moving back in time from post-war Brooklyn to the horrors of Auschwitz, Sophie’s Choice challenges notions of resistance and morality in subtle, complex ways.
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One of the first novels to portray the dehumanising effects of the Second World War, The Naked and the Dead interrogates ideas of masculinity and comradeship in the arena of military conflict. Set on a South Pacific island under Japanese control, Mailer’s uncompromising study of a band of men in extremis pulsates with brutal energy and whip-smart prose.
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A scintillating story of resourceful amateur spies up against the might of the Nazi machine, Above Suspicion is the best of Helen MacInnes’ woefully underrated espionage thrillers. Featuring strong female characters and clockwork plotting, this is perfect reading for fans of Len Deighton and John le Carré.
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Pacy, muscular and thrillingly exciting, Higgins’ bravura blockbuster about a Nazi plot to kidnap Churchill has endured for over forty years. Mixing authentic figures of the time with memorable fictional characters, The Eagle Has Landed is a wartime rollercoaster ride of action and intrigue.
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Having reshaped our understanding of the trenches of the Great War, Faulks tackles the occupation of France and the harrowing effects of military subjugation. Alighting on a highly engaging protagonist and a story that blends espionage and sensitive character study, Charlotte Gray is a page turning marvel that operates on a number of emotional levels.
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A heartfelt tale of love born in darkness, inspired by the astonishing true story of Lale Sokolov, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is as remarkable as it is life-affirming. At times almost unbearably poignant, Morris’ deft approach to the most emotive subject matter is a triumph of empathetic storytelling.
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Comments

vaughan jones

I would have added two books to this list. Both published sometime ago. The first a true story by Paul Brickhill Reach for the Sky. Story of Pilot Douglas Bader. Secindly CJ Samson Dominion These books have stayed with me since I first read them View more

vaughan jones
9th September 2019
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Graham Thorne

I cannot believe that no novel by Derek Robinson features in your list. He is one of our best writers on war and people at war. "Piece of Cake" is full of insight - and humour - and debunks some of the myths about the war in the air. View more

Graham Thorne
9th September 2019
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