8 Historical Fiction Novels About War-Torn Love
Gian Sardar, author of “Take What You Can Carry," recommends love stories of couples living under siege
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Every love story is built with inherently high stakes. After all, a heart can be the ultimate prize, and courtship a most dangerous risk. And love, as we all know, won’t stop for much. Our hearts pay no attention to timing or impediments, and logic falls by the wayside as we feel the anguish of lost love, or the triumph of love realized.
All by itself, love is tense and wondrous. But add in war, the threat to our very existence and humanity, and those stakes fly through the roof. For me, novels that explore love affected by war are the ultimate page-turners; books that might break or—surprisingly —mend your heart. After all, when the world is bleak and harsh, and a heart still finds the ability to soar, what could be more beautiful?
In my novel Take What You Can Carry, an American woman and her Kurdish boyfriend visit Kurdistan of Iraq in 1979, a time when the government tried to break the Kurds and their will, when friends and neighbors were pitted against one another, and a simple night out could end in devastation. I knew from the politics and the setting that the struggles would take them to the brink, and either make or break their love.
Here are 8 novels about war-torn love:
The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer
This World War II novel captures the heart-rendering love of a couple in Nazi-occupied Poland who are not only trying to survive, but are striving to make a difference. Split between two time periods, World War II and modern-day, we also see the result of their story decades later and the secrets they carried silently through the years.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
A nameless place under siege, and a love story amidst the chaos. Exit West is about two students who fall in love and try to find refuge through a series of magical portals that transport them to various locations around the world. In spare, exquisite language, this book shows the horrors of war and the refugee crisis, yet manages to be surprisingly hopeful.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
It’s the end of World War II and a mystery beckons: Who is the burned “English Patient” and what is his story? What unfolds is a beautifully written exploration of the aftermath of doomed love during war-time.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
At the end of the Civil War, an injured soldier, who has just deserted the Confederate army, makes the dangerous journey home by foot to reunite with his love. But what changes have they endured in their separation, and what toll has life taken?
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
In 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forced into the role of tattooing his fellow Jewish prisoners in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. When he meets Gita, Lale discovers a new purpose and a reason to survive. Based on a real story, this is truly love against all odds.
A Single Swallow by Zhang Ling, translated by Shelly Bryant
A Single Swallow follows three men—a missionary, an American soldier and a Chinese soldier—during the Japanese occupation of China. The men all have starkly different viewpoints, allegiances, and lives, but one thing binds them together: they loved the same woman.
This is How I’d Love You by Hazel Woods
Set during World War I, This is How I’d Love You is about a young woman who takes over her father’s mail correspondence with an American soldier abroad.
In Another Time by Jillian Cantor
Told in alternating viewpoints and timelines, In Another Time is about an enduring love between a bookstore owner and a Jewish violinist in Germany whose relationship is imperiled with Hitler’s rise.