There has been a resurgence in war novels in recent years as veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq return from the conflict and begin to try and make sense of what they have experienced and what the future holds for themselves. I am a huge fan of war fiction. Fiction about war I find is so much more powerful than non fiction. Non fiction is limited by facts and hindsight. In the case of biography it is limited to one point of view (which is also often the case with some history books). Fiction however has no such limits. Fiction can go inside the heads of people, in can give us both sides of the conflict, in can be in the ‘here and now’ or it can be reflective and it can trigger an emotional response rarely found in non fiction. 2014 has delivered another two wonderful books about what it is like to go to war, Redeployment by Phil Klay and Fives And Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre, so I thought I would list my Top 10:
10. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
Just pipping Birdsong this fantastic novel is about two Native Canadian friends who are both expert sharpshooters and, using the field craft they learned hunting in the forests of Hudson Bay, quickly become accomplished snipers on the Western Front. However the horrors of the war will not only test their courage and sanity but also their friendship.
9. Five And Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre
War is never one-sided. It is all-encompassing and personally harrowing. Pitre has captured this aspect of war with compassion, complexity and clarity. It maybe a cliche to say that this is an important book about war that we should all read but it is only a cliche because it is true. We can’t understand a war until we have seen all its sides and Michael Pitre’s powerful debut novel is the first to explorer the pain and destruction wreaked on both sides of this long and different war.
8. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
The way Tim O’Brien blends fact and fiction, short stories and a long narrative is breathtaking in its scope and emotional resonance. There is a reason why this is considered an absolute classic.
7. Fields Of Fire by James Webb
Webb presents the war in all its twisted glory and shame but without breaking the bond the reader quickly develops with the lead characters. You are immersed in the jungle and its claustrophobia, the monotony and futility of life as a soldier and the fear and insanity of being in combat.
6. Regeneration by Pat Barker
Easily the finest novel about the First World War. Barker’s novel is set in Scotland and explorers the effects of shell-shock and the experimental means of treating it. Featuring Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen this a powerful psychological portrait of the effects of war and what it takes to return to the frontlines.
5. City of Thieves by David Benioff
Captures the absurdity of war perfectly. Set during the Nazis’ siege ofLeningrad the futility of war is explored through an absurd life or death mission. In a city that has been cut off from the outside world, a 17-year-old boy and a Red Army deserter, must survive the starving, shell-ravaged city and the dangerous, lawless countryside in search of a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of a Russian Colonel’s daughter.
4. Redeployment by Phil Klay
This collection of short stories is unlike anything you have read before. Each story examines a different part of the decade long war in Iraq. From coming home to staying behind, from soldiers to civilians and all the chaos that war can cause.
3. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
The Yellow Birds is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. Which sounds odd for a novel about war but Kevin Powers is able to evocatively capture not only what is happening to the physical landscape of the novel but also the mental landscape. I have never read a book that captures the disintegration of humanity but also the power of humanity quite like The Yellow Birds.
2. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
This isn’t a war novel about heroes. It is not a war novel about politics. Although both are factors throughout the story. This is not about why America was in Vietnam, because the characters in the story didn’t get a choice in the matter. This is about men and boys who experience something that changes them forever and it is about societies that will change forever. It is about war, but the biggest battles are those that the men of Bravo Company have to fight with each other and themselves
1. The Thin Red Line by James Jones
I have not read another book that comes close to the raw emotion displayed in this novel. The vast array of characters, from PFCs to Colonels, gave a unique insight into the life and experience not only of an individual soldier but an army company as a whole. Charlie Company was a character in the book and the ridge they had to take was a ‘dancing elephant’ that was alive and violent.
What are your favourite war novels?