The Unwomanly Face Of War by Svetlana Alexievich

The Blurb On The Back:

Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive style, The Unwomanly Face Of War is Svetlana Alexievich’s collection of stories from Soviet women who lived through the Second World War: on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories.  As Alexievich gives voice to women who are absent from official narratives – captains, sergeants, nurses, snipers, pilots – she shows us a new version of the war we’re so familiar with, creating an extraordinary alternative history from their private stories.

Published in 1985 in Russia and now available in English for the first time, The Unwomanly Face Of War was Alexievich’s first book and a huge bestseller in the Soviet Union, establishing her as a brilliantly revolutionary writer.  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 and this translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is of her first work, an incredibly moving collection of stories and experiences that she collected through interviews with the Soviet women who volunteered for the Russian war effort during World War II to create a uniquely female look at the impact of war and its sacrifices.

Alexievich records the stories of the numerous women here as they were told to her, which means that they’re chatty and episodic recollections of specific memories and personal feelings rather than detailed accounts of battles or kit.  This may put off some fans of military history, but I found the accounts fascinating and incredibly sad – especially as the women recount the enthusiasm they had for serving their country, the impact the conflict had on their perception of femininity and the prejudice they faced in return (both during and after the War).  I think the most moving stories are the accounts that some of the women give of romances they had during the War and how afterwards many people decried their service as them effectively whoring themselves towards the male fighters.

I also found Alexievich’s introductions to the chapters to be interesting – especially where she mentions issues she had with the then Soviet censors who thought that this was an unsuitable subject but also the enthusiasm with which people came forward to recount their stories to her and the emotional effect that this had on her.  She also makes some interesting comments on the nature of history and on the role of women within both it and the realm of war.

To be honest I can’t find anything to criticise about this book.  It’s a fascinating and unique read that gives a human sense to a world of horrific brutality and I think that anyone interested in this period would find that it gives a valuable additional perspective.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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