Last updated Jan 22, 2023 | Listicle |

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World War 2 is one of the most popular and important subjects in historical fiction. Authors have approached it from many different angles, producing a diverse range of critically acclaimed novels. Here, we’ve shared 20 of the best WW2 historical fiction books. Of course, this list is far from exhaustive, but it’s one way into exploring this important and dramatic period of recent history through the imaginations – and research – of some extraordinary contemporary novelists.

1) The Night Watch (2006) by Sarah Waters

Set in the darkened streets of the blackout, Sarah Waters’ moving and intimate novel tells the interconnected stories of a handful of characters who each have their own secrets and desires, their own reasons for heroism, and their own understanding of the pervasive awareness of the fragility of life. The characters’ stories are fragmented and painful, and the backdrop of wartime London and its night watches serve not just as setting but also as metaphor. The Night Watch was nominated for both the Man Booker and the Orange Prize.

2) Half Blood Blues (2011) by Esi Edugyan 

Canadian author Esi Edugyan’s award-winning novel spans much of the twentieth century but focuses on the months before the occupation of Paris in WWII. An interracial jazz band in Berlin struggles against increasing pressures, including the deportation of their Jewish piano player, and flees to Paris – where their Afro-German trumpet player is then arrested by the occupying forces. The complexities of nationality and race permeate this novel, incorporating the language and rhythms of 1940s jazz in the narrative voice.

3) All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr  

The Pulitzer Prize winning story of Marie-Laure and Werner, whose stories intersect seemingly against all odds, has become one of the most acclaimed WW2 historical fiction books of recent years. Blind Marie-Laure leaves Paris with her father to find safety in the coastal town of St Malo, and orphaned Werner escapes a future in the German mines through listening to broadcasts on the radios he repairs. Throughout the novel, their lives move inexorably closer as they both try to escape the devastation wrought by the war.

4) Hitler’s Canary (2005) by Sandi Toksvig  

Set in Denmark in 1940, Hitler’s Canary tells the story of 12-year-old Bamse who, along with his friend Anton, has trouble staying out of trouble with the invading German forces. His eccentric family – based in part of Toksvig’s own family, including her father Bamse – are determined to help their neighbours, and they take part in the plans to smuggle Denmark’s Jewish families out of the country to safety in Sweden. As ostensibly a children’s novel, this offers a very accessible way into a little-known episode in the history of WWII for children and adults alike.

5) The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje

The breathtaking film adaptation by Anthony Minghella brought The English Patient to international attention. The novel by Sri-Lankan-born Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje is stunning and offers a tender, intimate account of four characters who find themselves in a deserted Italian villa: the ‘English patient’ of the title, a Canadian nurse, a Sikh sapper, and a Canadian thief. As the patient’s experiences in the North-African campaign are slowly revealed, the emotional effects of war become painfully apparent alongside the physical damage it causes.

6) The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006) by John Boyne

Irish novelist John Boyne’s heartbreaking novel is told from the point of view of Bruno, the 9-year-old son of the commandant of ‘Out-With’ – Bruno’s misinterpretation of the name of ‘Auschwitz.’ His  developing friendship with Shmuel, an inmate of the camp, reveals to the reader, although not to Bruno, what is going on there and highlights the gap between the two boys at the same time as their connection grows. The novel, with its innocent narrator, has been criticised for historical inaccuracies and a lack of detail – but its subtitle, ‘A Fable,’ highlights its intention as a story of a human relationship rather than a straightforward historical novel.

7) A Midnight Clear (1982) by William Wharton

American author William Wharton sets his novel in the Ardennes Forest on Christmas Eve 1944. It tells the story of six GIs who are ordered to establish an observation post at a deserted chateau near the border and their interactions with the German soldiers they come to realise are close by. This tightly-focused novel is already being afforded the status of ‘classic’ by some critics and was adapted into a film in 1992. Wharton served in WWII himself, explored his military time in his memoirs, and described the experience as a “soul-shaking trauma.”

8) When the Emperor was Divine (2002) by Julie Otsaka

Japanese American author Julie Otsaka’s debut novel draws on her mother’s family’s experience in American internment camps during the 1940s. The experiences of the four characters – an unnamed mother, father, son and daughter – are addressed in separate sections, exploring the preparations and the journey from their California home to the camp in Utah, as well as the family’s internment and their attempts to rebuild a life in a post-war atmosphere of racism and recrimination. The novel highlights the upheaval that war causes, even in the lives of people far away from the fighting itself.

9) The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) by Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan’s novel tells the story of an Australian doctor who is imprisoned in Burma, influenced by his own father’s experience as a Japanese POW. The novel’s climax – one horrific day on the notorious Burma Railway – leads on to reflections on the effects of guilt and trauma in the post-war lives of prisoners and guards alike, as well as what it means to be hailed as a ‘war hero.’ Flanagan’s novel was the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize and received wide critical acclaim on its publication.

10) The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018) by Heather Morris

A best-seller when it was first published, Heather Morris’s novel is based around the true story of Lali Solokov, a Slovakian who was charged with tattooing numbers onto Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz, and Gina Furman, the prisoner who he has to tattoo and who later became his wife. The novel has been critiqued for factual inaccuracies by historians but offers a moving and ultimately hopeful account of a relationship beginning during – and surviving long after – the horrors of the concentration camp.

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11) Baumgartner’s Bombay (1989) by Anita Desai

Hugo Baumgartner flees to India in an attempt to escape persecution from the Nazi government for his Jewish heritage. However, in India he is imprisoned as an ‘enemy alien’ on the basis of his German nationality. Desai’s powerful novel explores the complexities of identity through the story of Hugo, both in the internment camp and as a foreigner in post-war Bombay. After the war, Hugo has to build a life in an India that is moving towards regaining its independence from Britain. The novel is unusual and complex, but deeply moving, and it draws on Desai’s own German-Indian background.

12) Under Occupation (2019) by Alan Furst

American author Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers series of interconnected spy novels take place in Europe during the build-up to war and during WW2 itself. Furst acknowledges the influence of writers like Graham Greene and Joseph Roth, and he is renowned for tightly-written thrillers and his evocative pictures of Eastern Europe. Under Occupation, is set in Paris and tells the story of a novelist who finds himself caught up in an attempt to get military blueprints to the Resistance. He ends up going deeper than he expected into the underground’s attempt to defeat the occupying forces.

13) A Thread of Grace (2005) by Mary Doria Russell

American sci-fi author Mary Doria Russell’s first historical novel is set in Italy after it had made its own peace with the Allies, who were still at war with Germany. The 14-year-old protagonist and her father are among thousands of refugees fleeing over the Alps, and the novel tells a story of the little-known network of Italians who saved more than 43,000 Jewish lives in the final years of the war in Europe. The novel’s multiple narratives interweave the stories of Jewish refugees and Italian Catholics, as well as a Nazi deserter who confesses his involvement in the horrors of Auschwitz.

14) When the Sky Fell Apart (2016) by Caroline Lea

Caroline Lea’s debut novel explores the German occupation of the Channel Islands, Jersey in particular – the only part of the United Kingdom to be occupied during WW2. Starting dramatically with a burning man on a Jersey beach, the novel is set among the people of the Islands as they come to terms with the arrival of 12,000 German troops in their communities. Lea takes readers through the first years of the occupation, setting her characters’ experiences against a background of increasing hunger and deprivation, as well as the moral choices facing both islanders and occupiers.

15) Hiroshima Joe (1985) by Martin Booth

Set in post-war Hong Kong, the ‘Hiroshima Joe’ of the title is Joe Sandingham, a former British Army officer who lives in drug-fuelled squalor, is dying from radiation poisoning, and remains haunted by memories of his wartime experiences – which include time in a prison camp, the death of his lover, and the obliteration of Hiroshima. The narrative moves between the war and its aftermath, highlighting the barbarity of such conflicts and the far-reaching effects they have on those who witness, participate and are caught up in its darkest moments.

16) City of Thieves (2008) by David Benioff

Set in 1942, City of Thieves follows two young men during the Siege of Leningrad. Lev and Kolya are let out of prison to find a dozen eggs for the local NKVD commandant – otherwise they face execution. While on their impossible quest and heading far behind enemy lines, Lev and Kolya come across German soldiers and Soviet partisans – as well as meeting Vika, a female sniper. The novel mixes humour and realism, conveying the friendship between the two young men and the developing relationship between Lev and Vika, as well as the deprivation and conflict of the siege.

17) The Book Thief (2005) by Markus Zusak

Markus Zusak’s novel is unusual in that it has Death as its narrator. Set in Germany, Death tells the story of Liesel Memminger, who is sent to live with foster parents near Munich. Through her friendships with Max Vandenberg, hidden in the basement, and Ilsa Herman, the mayor’s wife, Liesel learns to read and becomes the ‘book thief’ of the title. As the terror and destruction of war come closer to home, Liesel starts to write as well as read. The novel was adapted as a film in 2013, starring Geoffrey Rush, Emma Watson and Sophie Nélisse.

18) Sarah’s Key (2006) by Tatiana de Rosnay

French author Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel opens during the notorious Vel’ d’Hiv roundup with the arrest of 10-year-old Sarah – who locks her younger brother Michel in a cupboard to protect him, believing she will be back in a few hours. On the sixtieth anniversary, Julia, an American journalist, is researching the event and discovers a trail of family secrets that lead her back to Sarah and Michel, as well as to the horrors of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ and the camps where so many of those taken ended up. It was adapted into a film in 2013, starring Kristin Scott Thomas.

19) One Man’s Justice (2001) by Akira Yoshimura

Set in Japan immediately after the war, the novel tells the story of Takuya, a demobbed officer who cannot return to his village for fear of being apprehended by the occupying authorities and prosecuted for his participation in the execution of American prisoners during the war. Raising questions about what constitutes a war crime – juxtaposing the treatment of American prisoners with the firebombing of Japan and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the novel asks complex and challenging questions.

20) The Nightingale (2015) by Kristin Hannah

American author Kristin Hannah’s novel of occupied France is about much more than simply romantic fiction set against the backdrop of war. The heart of the story brings to the reader the lives that women lead while men are fighting – lives of resistance, survival and betrayal. Sisters Vianne and Isabelle deal with the occupation of their country, their village and even their home in very different ways, as they are forced to house German soldiers, pushed to betray their friends, and driven to fight for their country.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this list of 20 of the best WW2 historical fiction books, compiled by editor Pippa Brush Chappell. Happy reading!

For more historical fiction book suggestions, check out our list of 30 of the best historical fiction books.

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