Review: THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich (2017)

Genre: Adult Nonfiction
Year Release: 2017
Source: Library Audiobook

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: war, gore, blood, dismemberment, bereavement, child death, sexual assault (briefly mentioned), dehumanization, slur against Romani, Holocaust, labor camps

Svetlana Alexievich has a phenomenal ability of pulling together oral histories. My first entry into her work is Voices from Chernobyl, which made up a significant portion of the TV program’s source material. This had sat on my TBR list for a while because of its content matter. Now that I’ve dived in, it is affecting. From the content of the accounts themselves to the delivery of the story telling, this work took me a while to get through. There are no filters to be found here, so proceed at your own discretion.

What kept me so invested in this work is the exploration of femininity versus masculinity in terms of Russian and Soviet culture. Women already held positions associated (in the United States) with men’s roles, such as doctors, engineers, mechanics, etc. To me, it seems like it has a lot to do with the proximity to death, and there are so many accounts of death to be found within these pages. There’s literal death, but also the idea that taking a life irrevocably changes a person. Many of the storytellers interviewed experienced such changes, and it is very hard to read, but also important for contextualizing those human costs. There’s also an exploration of shared humanity, guilt, and culpability. There are no clean answers, only feelings and stories.

The frankness of these accounts is also striking. Some of these women didn’t get to talk about their experience, either due to trauma or literal censorship. The fact that Alexievich included excerpts from censors who feared that it would obfuscate the glory of war and break people’s perception of its honorability. There is so much to unpack there, especially as some of the prisoners of war had also been arrested for treason under Communism. It seems that the suffering doesn’t have a clean ending, and the experiences of World War II still haunted the subjects long after, especially as they look upon children and grandchildren who may have been the same age when they initially enlisted.

Harrowing, raw, and unflinching, a read that is definitely must be approached with caution and great sympathy.

3 thoughts on “Review: THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich (2017)

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