While all conflicts are rife with emotion and turmoil, there is something about the fraught historical landscape of World War II that holds endless appeal for both writers and readers. Perhaps it is the idea of good ultimately triumphing over an unambiguous evil, or the charismatic historical figures that led the charge. Maybe it’s the ordinary people who did extraordinary things in the name of what was right, or the ability to find love, kindness, and generosity in the midst of such desolation. No matter the reason, World War II has captured imaginations for decades.
With such a wealth of literature dedicated to this time period, there is a head-spinning assortment of perspectives to explore. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of just a few of our favorite works of fiction set leading up to, during, or immediately following, WWII. From an emotional look at the experience of being a prisoner of war to a story of life in a Jewish ghetto, these books show the full breadth of a war that touched the lives of millions.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
“A symphony of tenderness and love, a moving and powerful story that captures the weight and breadth of a life. . . . A masterpiece.” —The Guardian
In the Man Booker Prize–winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan displays the gifts that have made him one of the most acclaimed writers of contemporary fiction. Moving deftly from a Japanese POW camp to present-day Australia, from the experiences of Dorrigo Evans and his fellow prisoners to that of the Japanese guards, this savagely beautiful novel tells a story of the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.
“The Whalebone Theatre is absolute aces… Quinn’s imagination and adventuresome spirit are a pleasure to behold.” —The New York Times
One blustery night in 1928, a whale washes up on the shores of the English Channel. By law, it belongs to the King, but twelve-year-old orphan Cristabel Seagrave has other plans. She and the rest of the household—her sister, Flossie; her brother, Digby, long-awaited heir to Chilcombe manor; Maudie Kitcat, kitchen maid; Taras, visiting artist—build a theatre from the beast’s skeletal rib cage. Within the Whalebone Theatre, Cristabel can escape her feckless stepparents and brisk governesses, and her imagination comes to life.
As Cristabel grows into a headstrong young woman, World War II rears its head. She and Digby become British secret agents on separate missions in Nazi-occupied France—a more dangerous kind of playacting, it turns out, and one that threatens to tear the family apart.
“Enchanted Islands is a many faceted jewel. It’s a spy thriller, a survivalist memoir, and a portrait of a marriage. . . . Fabulous. . . . Will carry you away.” —Chicago Tribune
Born to immigrant parents in Minnesota just before the turn of the century, Frances Frankowski grew up coveting the life of her best friend, Rosalie Mendel. And yet, decades later, when the women reconnect in San Francisco, their lives have diverged. Rosalie is a housewife and mother, while Frances works for the Office of Naval Intelligence and has just been given a top-secret assignment: marry handsome spy Ainslie Conway and move to the Galápagos Islands to investigate the Germans living there in the build-up to World War II.
Amid active volcanoes, forbidding wildlife and flora, and unfriendly neighbors, Ainslie and Frances carve out a life for themselves. But the secrets they harbor—from their friends, from their enemies, and even from each other—may be their undoing.
“Moving, suggestive and ultimately hopeful. . . . [The Reader] leaps national boundaries and speaks straight to the heart.” —The New York Times Book Review
Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany.When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover—then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.
“Stunning. . . . A tour de force.” —The New York Times Book Review
Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940, Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.
“Remarkable, beautiful. . . . A haunting mystery that is also a moving coming-of-age story.” —Chris Bohjalian, New York Times bestselling author of The Guest Room and Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands
Against the backdrop of occupied Tokyo, a young girl searches for her missing older sister, who has disappeared into the world of bars and dance halls. In the process, her story will become intertwined with those of others trying to make sense of their lives in a postwar world: a thirteen-year-old Japanese Canadian “repat,” a school teacher who translates love letters from American GIs, and a Japanese-American soldier serving with the Occupation forces. An emotionally gripping portrait of a battered nation, The Translation of Love mines this turbulent period to show how war irrevocably shapes the lives of people on both sides—and how resilience, friendship, and love translate across cultures and borders no matter the circumstances.
“Sensuous, mysterious, rhapsodic, it transports the reader to another world.” —San Francisco Chronicle
With unsettling beauty and intelligence, Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II.The nurse Hana, exhausted by death, obsessively tends to her last surviving patient. Caravaggio, the thief, tries to reimagine who he is, now that his hands are hopelessly maimed. The Indian sapper Kip searches for hidden bombs in a landscape where nothing is safe but himself. And at the center of his labyrinth lies the English patient, nameless and hideously burned, a man who is both a riddle and a provocation to his companions—and whose memories of suffering, rescue, and betrayal illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning.
“A masterpiece. . . . A story of such startling candor about the complexity of heroism that it challenges each of us to greater courage.” —The Washington Post
Small and sullen, Aron is eight years old when his family moves from a rural Polish village to hectic Warsaw. At first gradually and then ever more quickly, his family’s opportunities for a better life vanish as the occupying German government imposes harsh restrictions. Officially confined to the Jewish quarter, with hunger, vermin, disease, and death all around him, Aron makes his way from apprentice to master smuggler until finally, with everyone for whom he cared stripped away from him, his only option is Janusz Korczak, the renowned doctor, children’s rights advocate, and radio host who runs a Jewish orphanage. And Korczak in turn awakens the humanity inside the boy.
“A moving meditation on identity and belonging, and a love story to get happily lost in.” —Montreal Gazette
During Billy Lange’s childhood on the Isle of Wight, he is entranced by Karin, the wild and elusive daughter of a German-Jewish baron who employs Billy’s parents. Years later, after the upheavals of World War I, the two children are reunited on the baron’s Frankfurt estate. Billy and Karin first bond over the popular Wild West stories of Karl May, and later over their passion for jazz and Berlin nightclubs. But they also come to share a fantasy of escape from the 1930s Germany that is rapidly darkening around them—escape to the high plains of Texas and New Mexico they’d read about as children. Against the backdrop of Hitler’s rise to power, their friendship deepens into a love affair with extraordinarily high stakes. Brilliantly conceived and elegantly written, Peter Behrens’s Carry Me is both an epic love story and a lucid meditation on Europe’s violent twentieth century.
“Entertaining. . . . Dramatic. . . . Shute is a natural and effective story-teller.” —The New York Times
In Nevil Shute’s most beloved novel, a tale of love and war, we follow Jean Paget, its enterprising heroine, from the Malayan jungle during World War II to the rugged Australian outback.
Paget, a young Englishwoman living in Malaya, is captured by the invading Japanese and forced on a brutal seven-month death march with dozens of other women and children. A few years after the war, Jean is back in England, the nightmare behind her. However, an unexpected inheritance inspires her to return to Malaya to give something back to the villagers who saved her life. But it turns out that they have a gift for her as well: the news that the young Australian soldier, Joe Harmon, who had risked his life to help the women, had miraculously survived. Jean’s search for Joe leads her to a desolate Australian outpost called Willstown, where she finds a challenge that will draw on all the resourcefulness and spirit that carried her through her wartime ordeals.
“An exuberant mixture of history and romance, written with a wit that is incandescent” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
Extravagant, inventive, emotionally sweeping, Corelli’s Mandolin is the story of a timeless place that one day wakes up to find itself in the jaws of history. The place is the Greek island of Cephallonia, where gods once dabbled in the affairs of men and the local saint periodically rises from his sarcophagus to cure the mad. Then the tide of World War II rolls onto the island’s shores in the form of the conquering Italian army.
Caught in the occupation are Pelagia, a willful, beautiful young woman, and the two suitors vying for her love: Mandras, a gentle fisherman turned ruthless guerrilla, and the charming, mandolin-playing Captain Corelli, a reluctant officer of the Italian garrison on the island. Rich with loyalties and betrayals, and set against a landscape where the factual blends seamlessly with the fantastic, Corelli’s Mandolin is a passionate novel as rich in ideas as it is genuinely moving.
“Brilliantly crafted. . . . Will tear your heart out.” —The Washington Post
1943: Tucked away in the idyllic hills of Tuscany, the Rosatis, an Italian family of noble lineage, believe that the walls of their ancient villa will keep them safe from the war raging across Europe. But when two soldiers—a German and an Italian—arrive at their doorstep asking to see an ancient Etruscan burial site, the Rosatis’ bucolic tranquility is shattered.
1955: Serafina Bettini, an investigator with the Florence Police Department, has successfully hidden her tragic scars from WWII, at least until she’s assigned to a gruesome new case—a serial killer who is targeting the remaining members of the Rosati family one by one. Soon, she will find herself digging into past secrets that will reveal a breathtaking story of moral paradox, human frailty, and the mysterious ways of the heart.