As I am still immersed in things paternal – and as my father served in the second world war – I thought that this week I’d take the easy way out again and list some of my favourite Australian novels about that war. Although I call myself a pacifist, I don’t shy away from war novels. The main reason is because in war we see humanity under duress and, through that, we see the best and worst of human behaviour. I love how the best war novels throw up the “truths” that I love to find in literature.
I’m going to list just 5 – though I’ve read more than that – in the order that I’ve read them. I’ve chosen these 5 not necessarily because I think they are the best (though I have enjoyed them all) but for the different perspectives they offer on the experience of war. (Note: the dates after the titles are not the dates I read them but when they were first published! Just so you know!)
Nevil Shute‘s A town like Alice (1950)
Nevil Shute was one of my favourite authors when I was a teen though when I read him now I see that he’s not as good a writer as my other teen passion, Jane Austen! Nonetheless, he was a good storyteller and many of his novels were adapted for film, including A town like Alice. It’s primarily a post-war romance, but the two characters, English rose Jean and rough diamond Aussie Joe meet when they are prisoners of war in Malaya, a story which is told in flashback. It’s a pretty stereotypical romance but the war, the English-Australian cross cultural story, and the Australian outback setting captured my teen heart.
Arnold Zable‘s Cafe Scheherezade (2001)
Café Scheherazade is set in, and based on, the real cafe of the same name. It was, from its establishment in 1958 to its demise in 2008, a significant meeting place for Jewish refugees who came to Melbourne post war. The novel tells the stories of the Cafe’s patrons – their lives in Europe, and how and why they came to Australia. It taught me something I hadn’t known before – that many Jewish refugees came to Australia via Shanghai. Zable’s prose is beautiful, and though the stories, as you can imagine, contain much tragedy, the final message comprises those universals of courage, endurance, love and even laughter.
Markus Zusak’s The book thief (2005)
Zusak’s The book thief is one of those rare books that pulls off telling a terrible story with humour. Its subject is an ordinary German family which fosters a young girl, and then hides, to their great risk, a young Jewish man. It’s a deadly serious book about bravery and cowardice, about kindness and cruelty – and yet it has, much of the time anyhow, a rather whimsical tone.
Hans Bergner’s Between sky and sea (1946)
Bergner tells the opposite story to that told by Zusak. His characters are Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi occupied Poland on a boat – but no-one will let them land, no-one will take them in, the way the Hubermanns took in Leisl and Max in The book thief. It explores the impact of this, as the reality becomes clear to the boat’s occupants. It’s a pretty devastating story.
Alan Gould‘s The lakewoman (2010)
I started with a romance and I’m ending with a romance, but that’s where the similarity between the two books ends. Shute’s book has a pretty traditional trajectory – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, more or less – against the backdrop of the war and early post war period. Gould’s story is far more complex – more realistic about life and character, with a touch of the mystical thrown in. Gould argues that his is not really a war novel because it’s not about the war. To a large degree that’s true, but in a sense it’s true of many books set in war. War is the setting, but the themes are often something bigger (universals about human behaviour) and smaller (about how particular people behave under stress). One of the issues Gould explores is how the promise of a person’s life can be thrown, not only by the things that happen to them but by the decisions they make as a result. And in war, a lot of things can happen to a person!
I’ve limited myself to 5 so am sure to have missed some favourites of yours. I’d love to hear whether you read war novels, Australian or otherwise and, if so, what your favourites are. If you don’t read them, you can tell us that too!