Last month, Hot Off the Press took a look at the latest in war-themed nonfiction-scholarly tomes brimming with facts, figures, and footnotes. The authors of this month’s selections had to perform similar research, then internalize what they’d learned and process it, with the aid of their imaginations, into comparatively slim works of fiction. These writers interweave existing historical narratives with smaller-scale, more intimate ones of their own design. Here’s a survey of five new novels rooted in the same material as all those history lessons to which we probably should have paid closer attention in school.
by Richard Bausch
Richard Bausch’s Peace tells the story of three American soldiers and their Italian guide, set against World War II, the most sprawling, destructive war of our time. It’s never quite clear to Marson, Asch, and Joyner whether their escort really has their best interests in mind, a question that becomes even more important when they find they’ve walked straight into the crosshairs of a distant sniper. Though World War II typically lends itself to epic storytelling, Bausch’s tale is refreshingly sharp and focused. At only 171 pages, Peace can be read in a single sitting; the suspense-driven storytelling style makes such a reading almost involuntary.
The End of Manners
by Francesca Marciano
In The End of Manners, Francesca Marciano sends her two journalist protagonists to Afghanistan, an area that’s a stranger neither to local fighting nor to the clashes of history’s major powers. As with Bausch’s novel, the story is less about the larger military and paramilitary operations than about individuals and how they interact with their environment. The nature of their assignment forces the bombastic writer and the reserved journalist into a tricky spot: They’ve got to interview girls who elected to attempt suicide rather than go through with their arranged marriages. Trickier still, they’ve got to photograph these interviewees, none of whom are allowed to show their faces in public.
by Ron Leshem
Beaufort, an award-winner back in Israel, the country of its initial publication, deals with another tough region. The titular location, an old Israeli military outpost in southern Lebanon, is horrifically dull most of the time, and terrifying the rest. Author Ron Leshem writes the novel as the diary of young Lieutenant Liraz Liberti as he attempts to keep the peace among the 13 soldiers under him. That’s a difficult task when nothing’s going on and 26 idle hands can do what they please, but it’s made Herculean when Beaufort is beset by a series of sudden, unpredictable attacks. It’s a tale of military camaraderie under pressure and against odds, but one told with unusual immediacy.
In Pale Battalions
by Robert Goddard
Human drama plays out amidst the drama of war again in Robert Goddard’s In Pale Battalions. His commanding officer struck down at the Somme, Lieutenant Tom Franklin wraps up his time serving in World War I to pay a visit to the man’s family. Franklin’s arrival at their manor marks the transition from a standard war novel into one of intrigue, backstabbing, and layer upon layer of deception. It turns out that the family has a few more problems than the death of one of their own: Two additional bodies fall onto the pile in relatively short order, and Tom begins to suspect that the home may in fact harbor an intricate web of lies. Its unraveling takes place over the course of decades, a literary feat Goddard achieves nimbly.
by Nam Le
Nam Le’s The Boat, the only non-novel in this month’s pile, comprises seven short stories rooted in war and history. While at times focused on violent geopolitical events, it more frequently zooms in on the affairs of characters who have to live with the consequences. The clearest example is “Hiroshima,” which follows a young girl’s life in the days leading up to the impact of the atomic bomb. In other pieces, Le uses his wonderfully flexible prose style to explore Vietnamese ethnic identity, writing workshops, and even plain old drunkenness.