The Unwomanly Face of War
Svetlana Alexievich, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky
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Mr B's review
This sparkling new translation of Alexievich’s first book shows off her uniquely immersive and immediate form of narrative history writing. She recounts the testimony of her innumerable interviewees in order to describe history as it was actually experienced. Her subjects here are the Soviet women who fought World War 2 on the front line and at home, but whose voices were almost entirely omitted from the official histories. The resulting patchwork of memories is emotional and compelling.
THE TIMES, TELEGRAPH, GUARDIAN, OBSERVER and ECONOMIST BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2017
‘A must read’ – Margaret Atwood
‘Extraordinary. . . it would be hard to find a book that feels more important or original’ – Viv Groskop, Observer
The long-awaited translation of the classic oral history of Soviet women’s experiences in the Second World War – from the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
“Why, having stood up for and held their own place in a once absolutely male world, have women not stood up for their history? Their words and feelings? A whole world is hidden from us. Their war remains unknown… I want to write the history of that war. A women’s history.”
In the late 1970s, Svetlana Alexievich set out to write her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War, when she realized that she grew up surrounded by women who had fought in the Second World War but whose stories were absent from official narratives. Travelling thousands of miles, she spent years interviewing hundreds of Soviet women – captains, tank drivers, snipers, pilots, nurses and doctors – who had experienced the war on the front lines, on the home front and in occupied territories. As it brings to light their most harrowing memories, this symphony of voices reveals a different side of war, a new range of feelings, smells and colours.
After completing the manuscript in 1983, Alexievich was not allowed to publish it because it went against the state-sanctioned history of the war. With the dawn of Perestroika, a heavily censored edition came out in 1985 and it became a huge bestseller in the Soviet Union – the first in five books that have established her as the conscience of the twentieth century.
A must read — Margaret Atwood Extraordinary. . . it would be hard to find a book that feels more important or original. . . Alexievich’s strength – and a mark of her own courage – is that she is forever on the lookout for the seemingly inconsequential, almost trivial human moments. . . Her achievement is as breathtaking as the experiences of these women are awe-inspiring — Viv Groskop * Observer * A revelation. . . Alexievich’s text gives us precious details of the kind that breathe life into history . . . This is a book about emotions as much as it is about facts. It is not a historical document in the accepted sense. . . and yet ultimately, which historical documents are more important than this? — Lyuba Vinogradova * Financial Times * A profoundly humbling, devastating book, it should be compulsory reading for anyone wishing to understand the experience of the war and its haunting legacy in the former Soviet Union — Daniel Beer * Literary Review * These stories about the women warriors of Mother Russia are a symphony of feminine suffering and strength. . . Read this book. And then read it again — Gerard DeGroot * The Times * Astonishing. . . Her years of meticulous listening, her unobtrusiveness and her ear for the telling detail and the memorable story have made her an exceptional witness to modern times. . . This is oral history at its finest and it is also an essay on the power of memory, on what is remembered and what is forgotten — Caroline Moorehead * Guardian * One of the most heart-breaking books I have ever read. . . I urge you to read it — Julian Evans * Daily Telegraph * The least well-known wonderful writer I’ve ever come across — Jenni Murray * BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour * As with her other books, terrifying documentation meets great artfulness of construction — Julian Barnes * Guardian, Summer Reading * Groundbreaking. . . a mosaic of Russian women’s stories – from the home front to the front lines, from foot soldiers to cryptographers to antiaircraft commanders * Elle * Alexievich’s artistry has raised oral history to a totally different dimension. It is no wonder that her brilliant obsession with what Vasily Grossman called “the brutal truth of war” was suppressed for so long by Soviet censors, because her unprecedented pen portraits and interviews reveal the face of war hidden by propaganda — Antony Beevor The Belarusian writer has spent decades in listening mode. Alexievich put in thousands of hours with her tape recorder across the lands of the former Soviet Union, collecting and collating stories from ordinary people. She wove those tales into elegant books of such power and insight, that in 2015 she received the Nobel prize for literature — Shaun Walker * Guardian * Alexievich’s “documentary novels” are crafted and edited with a reporter’s cool eye for detail and a poet’s ear for the intricate rhythms of human speech. Reading them is like eavesdropping on a confessional. This is history at its rawest and most uncomfortably intimate. . . The book is not merely a corrective to male-centred accounts of conflict; it is a shattering and sometimes overwhelming experience — Andrew Dickson * Evening Standard * A remarkable collection of testimonies. . . Sitting at kitchen tables, Alexievich coaxes out of the women stories that describe a reality vastly different from the officially sanctioned version * New Yorker * Magnificent. . . After decades of the war being remembered by ‘men writing about men,’ she aims to give voice to an aging generation of women who found themselves dismissed not just as storytellers but also as veterans, mothers and even potential wives. . . Alexievich presents less a straightforward oral history of World War II than a literary excavation of memory itself * New York Times Book Review * A powerful and deeply moving document . . . giving voices to the women who served alongside their male counterparts only to have been rendered invisible, afterward, through sexist societal and bureaucratic systems * Vice * Reveals the harrowing, brave, and even quotidian memories of Soviet women whose voices were nearly stifled by the mores of history. These accounts fight our ingrained ideas about what makes a war story — Sloane Crosley * Vanity Fair * The exploitation of the memory of the war has been the central element of modern Russian ideology. It is what makes Ms Alexievich’s work so relevant today * Economist * A landmark in the study of female soldiers. . . Alexievich’s method is the close interrogation of the past through the collection of individual voices; patient in overcoming cliche, attentive to the unexpected, and restrained in exposition, her writing reaches those far beyond her own experiences and preoccupations, far beyond her generation, and far beyond the lands of the former Soviet Union — Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny Svetlana Alexievich rightly says she is a writer, not a historian. In her hands, the spoken word, even written down, conveys the vividness of individual experience, for it has the power of witness * Guardian * We should resolve to read this book alongside the world news report. . . Ms. Alexievich never tries to simplify. . . Refusing to pass judgment, crediting all, she listens, suffers and brings to life * Wall Street Journal *
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