Though I did not set out to write historical fiction, and certainly not novels set during WWII, in hindsight my path seems inevitable. I was always captivated by stories set during the war, even as a child. While backpacking during my years at Cambridge I set foot in Eastern Europe for the first time and I felt an instant connection with the region and its history. This was amplified in my subsequent time at the Pentagon when I returned to Europe to participate in some of the events commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the war. Later, I jumped at the chance to go to Krakow, Poland as a diplomat, where I ultimately wound up working on Holocaust issues and getting close to a number of survivors. It took years before I was ready to process those experiences and write about them. But once I began I was literally consumed by the stories that would become my first novel, The Kommandant’s Girl. Now with my latest novel, The Things We Cherished, I’ve had the chance to reflect upon a similar question: what keeps bringing me – and my readers – back to this troubled time period?
The war fascinates us because it is a study in contradictions – so recent in time that we know people who were alive, yet so surreal that it seems another planet. People were placed in the harshest of circumstances, often with personal and moral stakes, in grave tension with one another. And it is my observation from the outside that the connection to the war is particularly acute for my UK readers. I suspect this comes from having been so much closer to the war geographically, the effects of the bombings and hardships present in everyday life and leaving no one who was alive unscathed. War also forces us to look at the extreme circumstances in which people were placed and ask: what would I have done? It is such a fertile era for exploring human themes, such as guilt, sacrifice, loyalty, courage, betrayal and redemption.
The task of fictionalising the war is a daunting one. I’ve read the real life accounts, watched the documentaries, and most importantly spoken with the survivors themselves. Grappling with the magnitude of human emotion and suffering, I am forced to ask: who am I to tell the story? I remember watching a particularly moving depiction of the liberation of one of the concentration camps and being mortified by my own work. How could I write scenes at dinner parties and the opera when such horror was taking place scant miles away? The answer, I believe, is that such things really were happening and the juxtaposition of the everyday and the horrific is a part of the story that needs to be told. In the end, I feel that people have trusted me with their stories and as a caretaker of that most sacred legacy, I can only hope I’ve done them proud.
Set in WWII and the present day, The Things We Cherished is a poignant historical romance perfect for fans of The Postmistress, Suite Française and The Reader. The Things We Cherished is available from all good book shops now. Read the first chapter PDF now (n.b. PDFs not compatible with most mobile devices) .
Poppy (c) www.culturecloset.co.uk
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