Wartime books by women you need to read

Writer Anna Ellory lists the essential books about the Second World War written by women that you should read 

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

This book tells the untold story of the black population under Nazi Germany rule. At its heart, it is the story of friendship between Chip and Sid, in dual narratives between 1992 and 1939.

We learn about love, jazz and what it takes to forgive another, but—and inevitably harder—what it takes to forgive oneself. What I found profoundly moving was that it is set in racist 1939/1940s Germany, but it could easily be set in the present day. It was a story told with a distinct voice, masterly crafted and I couldn’t put it down. 

 

Sarah's Key by Tatiana De Rosnay

The story of ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski, a Jewish girl born in Paris, who is arrested with her parents during the Vel’ d’Hive Roundup in 1942. Before they go, she locks her four-year-old brother in a cupboard, thinking the family would be back in a few hours. This book broke my heart.

I was riveted by this story, heartbroken, completely bereaved. It’s told between two timelines; the second held the story together with Julia writing an article for the 60th anniversary of the round-up; the big questions in her life answered through her research and link to Sarah’s life. I will never forget Sarah’s story and I would love others to read it too.

 

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Told in reverse from 1947 to 1941 it follows four Londoners during wartime Britain. We meet Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan who are all searching for, or hiding from, something. I love Sarah Water’s writing and this novel is stunningly complex and compulsive reading. This book and its inhabitants live on long after closing its final page.

 

Between Shades of Grey (Ashes in the Snow) by Ruta Sepetys

I think this novel was initially intended for a YA audience, but it has been read widely—it had a (wise) title change when it was adapted for the screen.

What Ruta Sepetys does so brilliantly is tell an unknown story of Lithuanian prisoners of Stalin’s Gulag during the Second World War. She tells it with pace, horror, truth and with extraordinary hope, through the eyes of 15-year-old artist, Lina, whose passion for life keeps her alive. This is a story for everyone, it is engrossing and difficult to put down.

 

A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous

This is a non-fiction book. A diary of one woman fighting for survival during the fall of Berlin to Russian troops. As Anne Frank is a war diary for children to understand the horror and inhumanity of war; this is its adult counterpart.

Essential reading. Powerful. Courageous. Brutal.

 

Anna Ellory is a former children’s nurse who lives in Bath. She has just completed her MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, where she was mentored by Fay Weldon. 

 

The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory is out now, published by Lake Union (price £20 in hardback)

 

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter