Junghyo Ahn: Silver Stallion (1990)
It is September 1950, and General MacArthur — known throughout war-struck Korea as “General Megado” — has just landed his troops at Inchon. The soldiers establish an encampment named Texas Town, receiving local women who, as a consequence, are publicly shunned as “Yankee wives”. The devastating impact of MacArthur’s assault is seen through the eyes of local teenager Mansik, whose mother joins the prostitutes after being raped. By diverting his attention away from military battle, Junghyo re-establishes the human cost of war: in this context, the real price is demonstrated by Mansik’s accelerated adolescence and the compromised sexuality of the so-called “UN ladies”.
Richard Aldington: Death of a Hero (1929)
This deeply aﬀecting tale depicts the short life of artist- turned-army soldier George Winterbourne, who (as we are told in the opening pages) is killed after deliberately exposing himself to machine ﬁ re. We soon learn that it is George’s experiences of war, triggering a deep psychological decline, which draw him towards his fate. Death of a Hero perhaps lacks the relentless ferocity of its peers — details of actual physical combat account for less than half of the narrative. The real intensity of Aldington’s (partly autobiographical) novel instead lies in his savage condemnation of a society responsible for the slaughter of its own men.
Beryl Bainbridge: Master Georgie (1998)
Two photographers are among an unlikely group of Liverpudlians who embark for Constantinople and become involved in the carnage of the
Crimean war. Master Georgie, the conﬂ icted hub around which the others revolve, is seen from diﬀ erent points of view in a series of snapshots. But whereas the photographs distort the truth, Bainbridge’s diamond- bright insights reveal the horror and humour of people’s struggle to remain in control of lives ruled by random events and accident with the vivid economy of a writer at the top of her form.
Nigel Balchin: Darkness Falls from the Air (1942)
A love triangle played out against the London blitz, Darkness Falls From The Air is the tale of Bill Sarratt, an urbane civil servant whose work is hampered by needless bureaucracy. His marriage is equally wearing, with his wife Marcia openly involved in a long- running aﬀair with dreamy writer Stephen. Infused with a deliciously dry wit, Balchin’s novel is a perfect portrayal of the stiﬀ upper lip — with Bill appearing just as unperturbed by his wife’s inﬁdelity as he is by falling bombs. Balchin’s experiences at the ministry of food, meanwhile, feed into his slyly satirical portrait of a complex and ineﬀ ectual civil service.
JG Ballard: Empire of the Sun (1984)
Ballard’s 1984 account of his childhood in occupied Shanghai is not reportage — the author juggled incidents, removed events and largely shunted his parents from view — yet remains an evocative and disturbing account of life in wartime. Young Jim survives in empty houses, ingeniously obtaining the materials of survival, and is interned by the Japanese. It’s full of potent moral ironies, in which atrocities sit alongside mundane events and Jim admires the very technology that has wreaked havoc upon his world.
Pat Barker: Regeneration (1991)
Inspired by her grandfather’s experiences in the ﬁrst world war trenches, Barker’s trilogy of novels — which also includes The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995) — centres around the Edinburgh psychiatric hospital where soldiers were “cured” of psychological trauma before being sent back to the front. Rivers is the heroic therapist handling ﬁrst public objector Siegfried Sassoon, then Wilfred Owen and the ﬁctional Billy Prior, before sending them back to the devastation of the ﬁnal few months of the war. There are horrifying descriptions of trench warfare, but it is Barker’s forensic examination of the psyche of these men that makes her novel both contemporary and timeless.
Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way (2005)
The familiar horrors of the ﬁrst world war are seen from the fresh perspective of a young Irish volunteer in this passionate and lyrical novel, one of two by Barry to have been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. Too small to be a policeman like his evered father, Willie Dunne is proud to enlist in the British army. But on leave in 1916 he helps put down the Easter Rising, only to discover that some of his fellow countrymen regard the “ﬁlthy Hun” as “our allies in Europe”. The appalling complexity of war for soldiers who have been rejected by their homeland and can no longer identify the enemy is gripping and inevitably tragic.
HE Bates: Fair Stood the Wind for France (1944)
“Sometimes the Alps lying below in the moonlight had the appearance of crisp folds of crumpled cloth.” What could be more English than crumpled linen? Or HE Bates. And this novel is classically English in many ways. The brave, sensitive RAF bomber pilot John Franklin, for instance, is all restrained emotion even when his plane is shot down in France. Yet he falls so heartbreakingly completely for Francoise, the daughter of the mill owner who hides him in his home. Bates’s war novel concentrates on the continuance of love, and the possibility of renewal, his hero and heroine exhibiting levels of trust and commitment undimmed by their experiences.
Nina Bawden: Carrie’s War (1973)
Twelve-year-old Carrie Willow and her younger brother Nick are sent to Wales to escape the dangers of wartime London. Housed with the grim Mr Evans and his timid sister Lou, they encounter warfare of a diﬀerent kind and seek refuge with the enchanting inhabitants of the farm at Druid’s Bottom. Carrie’s eﬀ orts to help the people she has come to love lead her to commit what she believes to be a terrible crime. Though written primarily for children, this is an almost perfect novel, to be enjoyed at any age.
Roberto Bolaño: The Savage Detectives (1998)
Central characters Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are likened to “two Dennis Hoppers walking the streets of Mexico City”, but they are neither savage nor good detectives. They are part of a literary movement called “visceral realism” though, a minor movement engaged in gang warfare with another group, the “Stridentist”. At its heart, Bolaño’s novel is a kind of road novel: made up of interviews with Belano and Lima’s acquaintances, it sketches a scorching, epic portrait of the Americas. An novel as brilliant in its execution as it is bonkers in its conception.
Paul Bowles: The Sheltering Sky (1949)
A signiﬁ cant forerunner of the Beat movement, Paul Bowles’ bestseller is the story of three jaded American travellers — Port Moresby, his wife Kit and their friend Tunner — drifting through postwar north Africa. Having rejected the comforts of civilisation in their search for identity and fulﬁ lment, the trio are soon under threat from the sense of alienation and hostility that surrounds them. Inspired by Bowles’ own period of exile in Morocco, this account of a diﬃcult emotional journey made a huge impact on publication, having astutely tapped into a growing state of disaﬀection across America. Charlotte Stretch
William Boyd: An Ice-Cream War (1982)
In the early stages of the ﬁrst world war, newlywed Gabriel Cobb ﬁnds himself caught up in the ﬁ ght for control over eastern Africa. Meanwhile, in England, Gabriel’s brother Felix and wife Charis are left alone together as a mutual attraction grows between them. Their aﬀ air is cut short when they discover that Gabriel has been captured, prompting Felix to travel across an increasingly war-torn African landscape to ﬁ nd him. Interspersing vivid action scenes with moments of tranquillity in Kent, Boyd’s novel is a stirring portrayal of decaying British imperialism and the ordinary lives that become shaped by conﬂict.
Raymond Briggs: When the Wind Blows (1982)
This depiction of an elderly rural couple attempting to shield themselves from a nuclear blast by putting blind trust in government guidelines (cover windows with sheets and climb into paper bags) caused a sensation when it was published in 1982. Blacker-than-black comedy ensues as James and Hilda unwittingly succumb to radiation sickness, unable even to eat their reserved ginger nuts because their gums are bleeding uncontrollably. Surprisingly, it’s still classiﬁed as a children’s picture book in many a local library.
Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities (1974)
Gore Vidal called Calvino’s seventh novel — “or work or meditation or poem” — his most beautiful. Marco Polo describes his travels to Kublai Khan, presenting the world-weary emperor with fractal glimpses of 55 fantastic cities — the unﬁnished, the unforgettable, the dreamlike, the destroyed — that are all ultimately versions of his “ﬁrst city”, Venice. This glittering jewel of a book has been an inspiration to travellers, architects and authors alike, its pages brimming with meaning and possibility.
Elias Canetti: Auto-da-Fé (1935)
Peter Kien is an eminent sinologist in interwar Germany, comfortably insulated from humanity and any “touch of the unknown” by his library. Until, that is, he falls victim to his illiterate housekeeper and a proto-Nazi concierge, and begins a grotesque descent into madness and the urban underworld, guided by an evil dwarf. This is a blackly comic study of vulnerability, fascism and self-destruction by the polymathic author of Crowds and Power, and a serious novel of ideas in the grand Central European manner.
Willa Cather: One Of Ours (1922)
When it was published, Cather’s account of a Nebraskan farmer’s journey to the ﬁrst world war and his sacriﬁcial death in battle garnered high praise and vitriolic criticism in equal measure. The Pulitzer prize the following year was oﬀ set by condemnation from Hemingway, among others, for daring to tackle the “masculine” subject of war. But her novel is as much an epitaph for the passing of the pioneering experience and the inﬁnite opportunities of Western expansion, and far more ambiguous and wide-ranging than her critics allowed.
Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Journey to the End of the Night (1932)
This dark but humorous novel follows a young man, loosely based on the author, through the ﬁrst world war and into the poorest suburbs of postwar Paris. With its use of natural speech patterns and unﬂ inching descriptions of misery and wickedness, it was hugely popular in the 1930s, and continued to be inﬂ uential — Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and the Doors are among the many who have referred to it in their work — even though Céline was subsequently branded a Nazi sympathiser.
Wu Cheng’en: Monkey (1590s)
In this Chinese classic, the monk Tripitaka travels to India to fetch sacred Buddhist texts, accompanied by three disciples: the greedy Pigsy, the river monster Sandy and Monkey (recruited so that they may atone for past sins), on the way doing battle with demons, monsters and evil magicians. This boisterous comic adventure tale is both an allegory for the individual’s journey towards enlightenment and a social and political satire. The quest may have been given to the blundering monk, but the real star of the story is its antihero, the irrepressible trickster, rule-breaker and troublemaker Monkey. The novel was the inspiration behind a cult Japanese 1970s television show, and its latest incarnation is Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn’s “pop opera” Monkey: Journey to the West.
Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness (1902)
The most explosive, and recently controversial, indictment of European
colonialism in British ﬁction. Conrad’s series hero, Charles Marlow, is discovered spinning a yarn to a group of friends on board his yacht, in the mouth of the Thames. Marlow ruminates about his early assignment, from the “Company” in Brussels, to steam upstream to the heart of the Belgian Congo, where the manager of the inner station, who is in charge of ivory harvesting, has apparently gone mad. Despite obstacles (and witnessing scenes of hideous colonial cruelty), Marlow completes his mission, and ﬁnds Kurtz — originally a fervent idealist — has reverted to savagery. He dies, with the words: “The horror! The horror!” Marlow himself has seen into the heart of darkness, and is a changed man thereafter.
Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim (1900)
Lord Jim takes the familiar narrative of the seafaring hero and turns it inside out, as only Conrad can. His Jim is a young idealist who is promoted in the merchant navy without ever really having had his mettle tested. When the moment comes, Jim makes the coward’s choice — an act that determines the rest of his life, down to his idolisation by a Malaysian tribe. But is he really in the wrong? Conrad uses every trick he knows to express the doubts and fears of a time when ideas of conventional morality seemed to be crumbling underfoot.
Joseph Conrad: Nostromo (1904)
Settlers, natives and interlopers all battle for control of a silver mine in the ﬁctional South American country of Costaguana. Many of Conrad’s familiar obsessions are here: revolutionary politics, the curdling of ambition into avarice, oppressive heat, confusion and corruptibility. But where Heart of Darkness draws us into a deeply subjective interior, the language of Nostromo is radically exteriorised — alienating, even. An essential modernist experiment, as rigorous and unsparing in its imagination as the glare of the midday sun that falls upon its cynical protagonists.
Bernard Cornwell: Sharpe’s Eagle (1981)
According to legend, Cornwell only started writing his ﬁrst book about his
lantern-jawed, Napoleonic-era riﬂeman because green card regulations prevented him earning a conventional living when he relocated to America. It’s a story guaranteed to infuriate unpublished writers suﬀering for their art. What makes the series so pleasurable: is Cornwell’s enthusiasm for his historical subject and delight in his rough-hewn hero’s escapades. His prose may be workmanlike, but his relish for the books is infectious. In short, Sharpe is fun.
Francis Coventry: The History of Pompey the Little (1751)
Coventry’s satirical novel follows the adventures of a small canine across numerous diﬀerent owners’ laps to the top of English society. He may have no religion, but Pompey, “always willing to fetch and carry”, has “courtly manners” and proves an object of adoration until he suﬀers “a violent physick” and barks his last. To describe this satire as unique barely does justice to its eccentric charm, but only recently has Coventry been recognised as a talent independent of his hero Henry Fielding. A shame, since this book deserves a wide readership.
Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
When Crane started reading Civil war veterans’ reminiscences, he complained: “They spout enough of what they did, but they’re as emotionless as rocks.” So he created someone altogether more feelingful. His own Union army private Henry Fielding may start ardent for glory, but his ﬁrst experiences of the horror and cruelty of battle forces him to plumb the depths of fear. Crane’s empathetic ability to convey the full gamut of these emotions, combined with the bracing realism of his battle sequences, make this a milestone in American literature.
Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe (1719)
This is the original adventure yarn. Crusoe rebels against his father, runs away to sea and has all sorts of adventures, including a daring escape from slavery in north Africa, before God decides to teach him a lesson and shipwrecks him on his desert island. The only survivor, our entirely resourceful hero, survives for 26 years by learning how to make everything from scratch, from pots to Christian theology (he does have a bible). He also defeats encroaching cannibals and pirates. The older, wiser Crusoe tells the story, seeing God’s will — “the Chequer-work of Providence” — at work in every event.
Len Deighton: Bomber (1970)
Set over the course of a single day, Bomber charts the progress of an ill-fated RAF raid on Nazi Germany. The dramatic events are seen from multiple vantage points, adopting perspectives from both sides of the conﬂict. The level of detail employed in this frequently underrated novel is what makes it truly shocking: its tone of cool, clinical analysis is always the same, whether applied to death and destruction or machinery and weather conditions. An acclaimed BBC radio dramatisation, starring Tom Baker, capitalised on the novel’s potent docu-drama feel by using a highly eﬀective real-time framework, drawing out in full the terrifying intensity of Deighton’s writing.
James Dickey: Deliverance (1970)
Four friends set out on a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee, a soon-to-be-dammed river in northern Georgia. While there, the men encounter two savage locals who quickly transform the weekend adventure into a traumatic ordeal — one that not everyone survives. Though frequently overshadowed by the success of John Boorman’s 1972 ﬁlm adaptation, Dickey’s novel possesses its own strain of intoxicatingly visceral poetry. This compelling story of two cultures, brought together in a state of violent conﬂict, serves as a gripping examination of lost innocence and moral uncertainty in the quiet backwoods of America.
John Dos Passos: Three Soldiers (1921)
Dos Passos worked as an ambulance driver during the ﬁrst world war, and this shows in a book which cleverly contains very little combat but all the boredom and brutality of the sidelines. The bewildering idiocies of boot camp, the interminable waiting around with no idea why, the aﬀectless encounters with prostitutes — all combine to grind three Americans of diverse backgrounds into just so much “meat for guns”. Characteristically episodic and disorienting, this is a gem of an antiwar novel by an unjustly overlooked writer.
Norman Douglas: South Wind (1917)
In 1916 Douglas was arrested when a boy made a complaint to the police for (as Douglas said) “kissing [him] and iving him some cakes and a shilling”. He jumped bail, ﬂeeing to Capri, whose salubrious atmosphere inspired this captivating song of praise to the beauties of the Mediterranean and the pleasures of hedonism. Often criticised for having no plot, South Wind is a mystifying, but still enlightening, conversational novel, full of entrancing discussions of love, pleasures and scandals that together form a touching plea for tolerance and fantastic evocation of bohemian life.
Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers (1844)
The story of the dashing d’Artagnan, the swashbuckling musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis and their epic struggles against the feline M’Lady is one of the best-loved in western culture. It may be the subject of more than a dozen ﬁlms, not to mention endless TV serials, cartoons and spin-oﬀ books, but Dumas’s book is still the best place to go to really get to know the characters. Its fast-paced narrative and curious philosophical musings also ensure it remains the most entertaining and intriguing of all the versions out there.
Lawrence Durrell: Justine (1957)
The ﬁrst of the Alexandria Quartet — with Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958) and Clea (1960) following — which chronicles the lives and loves of a group of expatriates in Egypt before and just after the second world war, was an instant and lasting success, both popular and critical. The eponymous heroine is “a child of the city, which decrees that its women shall be the voluptuaries not of pleasure but of pain, doomed to hunt for what they least dare to ﬁnd!” Alexandria, “the great winepress of love”, is evoked in prose of intoxicating lyricism, but for many readers these books are a vintage best appreciated in youth.