Change is implicated in all novels’ plots. No change is greater than that brought by war: physical change to bodies, buildings and landscapes; social and economic change to families and other communities large and small.
In the exploration of human relations, emotions, loss, change and survival after an armed conflict fiction has an important role to play. There may be no peace as delayed, new or latent issues emerge. Characters shift from a communal effort towards one objective – winning the war – to a focus on their own personal lives and difficulties.
Such change and conflict is fertile ground for novelists as these recommended post-war novels demonstrate, all set in the years following the Second World War.
- Shirley Hazzard The Great Fire
- Marghanita Laski The Village
- Marie Sizun Her Father’s Daughter
Survival and guilt
The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (2004) published by Virago. pp314
The title of this novel put me off but a writer friend recommended it and now I believe it is one of the best novels I have read. The fire refers to the engulfing flames of the Second World War, the involvement of so many countries, the explosion of the first A Bomb in Hiroshima and the scorched emotions of characters in the novel including a consuming love. And this novel considers the damage brought by survivor guilt.
Aldred Leith is an Englishman in Japan in 1947, physically and emotionally scarred. He meets a much younger Australian woman, Helen, and falls for her. The narrative follows Leith’s love for Helen, so strong, so necessary for his survival that it affirms the importance of love for humans, for a decent life, in war or peace. But it is much more than a love story, being peopled by the wounded victorious, the accidental survivors, the chance encounters, the generosity of strangers, the bitterness of war.
Here’s Adam Mars-Jones’s review from the Observer in Dec 2003: ‘surely an outright masterpiece’.
The Village by Marghanita Laski, first published in 1952, reissued by Persephone Books in 2007. 302pp
This novel looks at post-war village life in England, the changes and frictions left after conflict. These are explored through the relationship of Margaret Trevor and Roy Wilson, one from the declining and impoverished middle class and the other from a respectable working class family. Roy is a compositor, a man of the future. Margaret’s family disapprove of their relationship, but they have hardy a penny to their name. Their reference points are pre-war.
For Wendy Trevor it is the worst social embarrassment to have her daughter engaged to a working class man. Mrs Trevor is prepared to do stupid and destructive things to ensure her daughter doesn’t marry Roy. But the reactions of the other villagers shows us how things have been changed by the war and also about values that were maintained despite so much destruction.
The value of property, the inability to maintain large houses, the changing relationship between workers and ‘masters’, even the contrast between Negroes in the North of the US and the working class are revealed.
A reunited or divided families
Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun, first published in French in 2005 and published in English in 2016 by Peirene Press. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter. 150pp
It’s Paris in the dying embers of war. A little girl lives with her mother in a close and rather spoiled relationship in a flat; her father is absent – a prisoner of war. Only her grandmother makes any impression on the child, with a memory of a holiday in Normandy and the birth of a baby sister. Back in Paris, without the baby, the child is told that the episode was a dream. The father returns, damaged, but happy to be back. The child reveals her mother’s lie and the father leaves and later marries someone else.
Told from the child’s point of view, her relationships within the family are charted through devotion to the mother, hostility to the father, changing into reluctant pleasure at her father’s presence, then devotion to him. When he leaves the little girl is forlorn, but then reinstates her relationship with her mother. Later in life she reflects on what her father has given her.
Rather a sad tale of change brought by war.
Some Other Post-War novels
Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey is set partly in the present and partly in the austerity years immediately after the Second World War. This novel deals with memory, dementia and loss. You can find my review here.
Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004) is partly set in the post WW2 era, and explores how people reacted to West Indian immigrants, among other things. It celebrates the West Indian contribution to the war effort and the attraction of the Mother Country.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009) is a ghost story – or is it? – set around a dilapidated and declining country house in Warwickshire in the late 1940s, at the start of the National Health Service. The characters emerge from the trauma of the war to experience yet more difficulties in peacetime.
Over to you
Can you recommend any more post-war novels? What makes it such a good time setting for a novel?
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