What I Was Reading: Contemporary Women’s Fiction about War

In August, I signed up to read several books available to book bloggers via Crazy Book Tours. The novels I selected caught my attention because they were all examples of contemporary women’s fiction dealing with war. I did my undergraduate thesis on women’s war writing, and the relationships between women, writing, and war continue to fascinate and (sometimes) overwhelm me. I thought that reading some contemporary literary fiction about women in wartime would be thought-provoking and maybe even enjoyable…so I signed up to read the debut novel of British writer, Catherine Hall, Days of Grace, Daphne Kalotry’s first novel, Russian Winter, and Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress.

I thought the books would arrive over the course of a few leisurely weeks, a month even, and that I’d have time to write and reflect on each of them. I also assumed that I’d want to (write and reflect on them, that is). But the three books arrived within a week of each other, I found myself suddenly (and really happily) employed. Though I read the first two quite speedily, when I tried to start The Postmistress, my brain gave me one of those messages I’m becoming more and more attentive to, where I read a few paragraphs of a novel, maybe a few chapters even, and then my brain says “You don’t need this to be one of the books you read in your life. It doesn’t need a place on that ultimate shelf.” And so I stopped reading The Postmistress, through no fault of the book’s own other than my overdose on contemporary fiction and it’s failure to captivate me (which is not an uncommon one).

And when I stopped reading The Postmistress, I also stopped preparing the piece i was writing comparing the three novels to one another. And I never started it again. So now I’m writing it, and I’ll begin with the book I read first, Catherine Hall’s Days of Grace. The publicity material sent out by Viking compares Days of Grace to the writing of Sarah Waters (whose book, The Little Stranger, I wrote about in May, and whose novel, The Night Watch, set during World War II, was utterly compelling), to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and to the lovely novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

I don’t think Hall’s debut quite stands up to these lofty comparisons. The book displays neither Waters’ magical ability to evoke the world of another historical period, nor Atonement’s graceful interweaving of past and present and of fact and fiction, and nor does it have the joyful, literature-loving , letter-writing cast of characters that made The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society so memorable.

Days of Grace tells the story of Nora Lynch, a girl from a poor neighborhood of London who is sent to live in the English countryside during WWI. She is taken in by Rev. and Mrs. Rivers and their daughter, Grace, who is the same age as Nora. Hall’s narrative moves between Nora’s early adolescence while she lives out the war with the Rivers family in Kent, and her post-war present day (yes, our present day) life as an old, ill woman living alone in London.

I found the beginning of the book a bit heavy-handed, and the narrative shifts between the 1940s and the modern day initially made it difficult for me to feel drawn into the world of the novel. But as the novel progressed, the characters, especially Nora and the irrepressible, golden-haired Grace, came to life. Particularly strong is Hall’s rendering of Nora’s awakening sexuality and her passionate adoration of and intense attraction to Grace, her desire to touch her, to love her, and her deep-seated belief that her feelings are wrong, sinful, and worst of all, responsible for all of the evil and loss whose true causes remain hidden within the complicated backdrop of the war itself, and the motivations which compel man against man.

What I liked best about this book (and it’s a rather grim thing to have liked best) is that Hall doesn’t flinch in her depiction of Nora’s self-loathing. Throughout the novel, Hall conveys Nora’s hatred of her uncontrollable attraction to the fair-haired, charismatic Grace (and presumably, later on, to other women) as Nora herself sees it: as a disease which burns within her, an evil that begins in the novel’s first chapter when Nora gets her period for the first time on the train from London to Kent, and which continues through the novel’s final chapters, when Nora succumbs slowly and painfully to what the reader is left to assume is terminal and untreated cervical cancer.

The connections Hall creates between the physical maturation of moving from girlhood to womanhood, between the “Curse” of menstruation, the womb, and the eventual tumor-filled pain of cervical cancer are cuttingly clear: for Nora, not only her attraction to other women, but her womanhood itself, is a curse. Hall doesn’t write tentatively, which I admire. I’ll be interested to see what she writes in the future.

Structurally, Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter contains some striking resemblances to Days of Grace. The novel moves between two narratives, one taking place in post-World War II soviet Moscow, the other in modern Boston. And the central character is, again, a woman, who in the earlier narrative is young and healthy, and in the latter is old and ill, and hiding a secret buried in the depths of her past.

In 1950s Moscow, Nina Revskaya is a ballerina, the star of the Bolshoi Ballet, and in love with a young poet, Victor Elsin. In the present, Nina is an old woman living in Boston, the city in which she ultimately arrived after defecting from the Soviet Union, leaving behind her husband, who was executed shortly after her defection. Her body, once strong and lithe, is torturing her with pain and immobility.

She has decided to auction off her jewels, many of which were gifts, some of which were smuggled from Russia nearly half a century ago, and the auction catches the eye of a professor of poetry, Grigori Solodin, who is the lone translator of Revskaya’s husband’s work. Solodin and Revskaya share a past that neither of them fully understands, and the novel moves gracefully between past and present, slowly revealing the complicated truth of their connection, a story full of love, betrayal, friendship, and fear.

My favorite parts of the novel are the descriptions of Revskaya’s life as a ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet, of the life of the theatre, and of artists in soviet Moscow, a world of composers, poets, and dancers, living and creating under soviet rule. I love the questions the novel investigates, concerning art, truth, politics, love and loss. I love the richness of Kalotry’s characters, and the way her narrative moves easily between their minds, giving the novel a depth that Days of Grace, told entirely from Nora’s point of view, fails to achieve.

I’d recommend Russian Winter to anyone who loves ballet, anyone looking to read a rich and moving novel, and anyone interested in reading fiction about the experience of being in artist in a country where one’s artistic expression is so closely monitored and controlled by the political regime. I really enjoyed Russian Winter. I think it’s just been published this month, and I hope it does well.

And as for The Postmistress, like I said, I read a few paragraphs, and decided it was a book I just didn’t need to read. I can’t say it would be that way for you…you might love The Postmistress. I can only  say that when you encounter books like that, books you just don’t feel compelled to read, no matter how highly recommended they come, no matter how much you feel like you really should read it, and more than that, really should love it and think it’s the best thing ever, follow your instincts. Put it down, and read something else. If it’s really something you’re meant to read, you’ll come back to it, or it will come back to you. Otherwise, life’s too short. Too many books, not enough time.

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One thought on “What I Was Reading: Contemporary Women’s Fiction about War

  1. Pingback: The Dream Life of Sukhanov | The Art of Reading

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