The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (translators)

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The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (translators)

Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Fran Smith
Reviewed by Fran Smith
Summary: Russian women war veterans tell their own stories in powerful eyewitness accounts.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: July 2017
Publisher: Penguin Classics
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0141983523

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War, says Svetlana Alexievich, is first of all murder, and then hard work. And then simply ordinary life: singing, falling in love, putting your hair in curlers…. This extraordinary book is a collection of first-hand accounts by Russian fighting women in the Second World War. A million women joined Russian military forces as soldiers of all ranks, medics, pilots, drivers, snipers, cryptographers. Most were very young, little more than girls of 18 or 19. They were passionate about defending their homeland and often extremely keen to join up, returning again and again to recruitment offices until someone could be persuaded to take them. Their ambition was to help their brothers, fathers, husbands to fight the terrible invader. They were trained and sent to the front, where they were greeted at first with disappointment and disgust by fighting men, who had hoped for reinforcements of able-bodied men. The women had to prove themselves.

Alexievich interviewed them, and weaves their vivid testimonies together to paint a picture of the terrible dangers they endured, as well as the everyday hardships and the shock of brutality. Some also talk openly of cruelties they inflicted themselves. They had no choice. Some regret what they did; others do not. Some are proud; some hate even the thought of the war. They were old ladies when she met them, but some were still suffering the after-effects. Many had hardly ever spoken of their war since, even to their husbands.

I don't love great ideas. I love the little human being, Alexievich says in the introduction, in answer to a censor who accuses her of not loving Marx and Lenin. She wants, she says, to write a book that would make war sickening, and the very thought of it repulsive. Insane. So that even the generals would be sickened. She has done so, and it is a testament to her skill as an editor and interviewer that the result is also humane and does not allow us to make easy judgements of these incredibly brave and honest women. In large part this is because of the touching details that stand out in their stories.

One woman remembers cutting off her beautiful long plait of hair, another couldn't find army boots to fit her tiny feet. A skilled sniper weeps after her first kill, but then toughens up and wins her commander's approval by outshooting the men. A dying solder asks a young nurse to show him her breast, he has been away from his wife for so long. Shocked, she runs away. When she returns, he has died. A nurse remembers working alone in a ward of 200 injured men. She didn't sit down or sleep for four days, then fell over and slept on the floor. One woman recalls how hateful it was to wear men's underwear – all they were given. They fell in love, they ate bread made of mud and dust, they dreamt of washing their hair, of sleeping in a real bed. When they came home their families often didn't recognise them. They woke at night screaming, for years.

Alexievich was the Nobel prizewinner for literature in 2015. She has written several books using this technique of bringing together a chorus of voices to create the human story of an event. This translation of The Unwomanly Face of War is the first time these women's stories have been available in English.

Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler's Aces by Lyuba Vinogradova and Arch Tait (translator) offers another view of women pilots in the second world war.

Buy The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (translators) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (translators) at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (translators) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (translators) at Amazon.com.


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