The Unwomanly Face of War – Svetlana Alexievich

About the Book

Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive style, Svetlana Alexievich shares stories of women s experiences during World War II on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories. The Unwomanly Face of War is a powerful history of the central conflict of the twentieth century, a kaleidoscopic portrait of the human side of war.”

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This is a review of the audiobook, which I own.

Today, I’d like to talk about something a bit different. This, as it happens, is one of my favorite books. It’s also one of the most difficult to read. Not because of the writing style. In fact, the translation is superb, and the writing flows so well you can lose yourself in it. No. It’s difficult because of the subject matter, and Alexievich’s unflinching way of covering it.

Before I continue on, I will say that I’ve listened to this book numerous times, and the audiobook performance is unreal. It is so well done, I doubt I will ever enjoy this book any other way. It’s a full cast recording and it’s just absolutely stunning. So, if you are into audibooks, I highly recommend this one.

Now, back to the book. Alexievich has won the Nobel Prize for Literature due to her books. She sort of blazed her own trail and created her own subgenre of historical nonfiction. Her books are all “oral histories” where she interviews people who lived through certain events, and then writes down their interviews in a rather pretty style. In fact, her writing is… well, it’s something else, and it was personally very, very, very influential to me.

I recently had someone write me a letter about Seraphina’s Lament, and in this letter she said the prose in my book reminded her of Svetlana Alexievich’s writing. She hit the nail on the head. I’ve read all of Alexievich’s books, and I’ve read them all multiple times. I studied her work intensely before (and while) I wrote Seraphina’s Lament, and the reason is because she has a knack for marrying beautiful–absolutely gorgeous OMG I want to hang this in an art gallery it’s so pretty–prose with heavy, difficult, ugly subject matter and I wanted to do that in my own book. Alexievich is HUGELY inspirational and was one of my bedrock influences when I wrote Seraphina’s Lament. The way she tells horrific stories so beautifully was nothing short of inspiring for me.

The Unwomanly Face of War was first written in the 1980’s. It’s been updated a bit and translated into numerous different languages, and it’s a book I routinely throw at someone if they ask “what’s the best/most important book you’ve ever read?”

Alexievich interviews a whole bunch of women who fought on the Soviet side of World War II, and tells their story. She doesn’t hide any of the ugly details, does not shy away from the things that will make you uncomfortable. She’s also one of the first modern women who have told the story of female soldiers, and unflinchingly at that. She gives many of these woman voice, and while it’s horrible and hard to read, it’s eye-opening to see the war from their perspective. In all honesty, this book singlehandedly reframed how I saw and understood World War II, and my research since I’ve read this book has just underscored that.

Out here, at least where I’m at, we covered a whole lot of the western end of World War II. What I mean by this is, we covered a lot of France and England and the concentration camps. There’s not a whole lot taught about the Soviet Union, or the Bloodlands (Poland, Ukraine, etc.) I wasn’t really aware of just how horrible that part of the war was until I started doing research on it for my own series. I also wasn’t aware of the fact that women fighting wasn’t a thing that was common outside of the Soviet Union (or that women fighting was even a thing INSIDE of the USSR). Nor did I understand just how brutal that side of the war was, and how women were thrust into the center of it, and how unique that was at that time period.

This book talks about a lot of things. Women who were conscripted or willingly joined, some are as young as twelve (they lied about their ages to join the army and fight for the Motherland). She interviews female fighter pilots, who actually learned their internal organs had moved around in their bodies due to the pressure of flying and the speed and frequency with which they did it. She talks about how the war threw off menstruation cycles and finding love on the battlefield. Instances where, in order to survive, one person had to be sacrificed for the whole. She dips a toe into the mental effects this had on the women she interviews, what happened to those who were disabled, to the survivors and more. She talks about life on the battlefield, and paints emotional portraits that will stick to your ribs long after you finish the book.

It’s haunting, and honest, and absolutely must be read.

This book really transformed my perspective of World War II, and brought a lot of the color and context of the war to light for me. It also was a jumping-off point for a lot of my World War II research. More than that, though, is the fact that this book gave voice to many female soldiers and their stories, which would have been forgotten if not for Alexievich.

I am a huge, huge fan of Alexievich’s writing, and now I gobble down everything she has out (in English). I read her books numerous times. I study her prose, and I internalize her stories. The thing is, we so often look at the big historical picture. We forget that history is full of individual voices, that the generals and the presidents and commanders are important, but the truth of what happens is often written on the broken backs of the average people, and that’s who Svetlana Alexievich gives voice to. Her oral histories reframe the events I thought I knew, and by giving voice to those who would typically be forgotten, she gives them a certain measure of power. She immortalizes them.

In World War II, the Soviet women jointed the fight in droves, and it’s not really something many people in the West know much about. We are currently thrown into a war of ideology where words like “fascism” and “socialism” are spoken of without any real understanding of what those words mean, or even that “socialism” and “communism” are not the same thing. We do not, very often, understand the battles that were fought in the name of these two ideals, which were horrific and bloody in the extreme. We do not see the faces of the soldiers who fought bravely, died, and survived. We do not hear their stories, or see their faces. We don’t take time to understand, and maybe that’s part of the problem.

I digress.

There are some books that are just knock-your-socks-off good. There are some books that are important. It is a rare thing indeed when those two factors merge and become one, but Alexievich has managed it. Not just here, but I’d argue that all of her books are like that. This one, however, might be the foundation from which all her other books spring. This is the one which I think everyone, everywhere should read. Period. It will haunt you. It will disturb you. It will never, ever leave you.

Seriously, just read it.


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