12 Powerful War Novels that Transcend War

That war stories must occur in strange lands far from home, filled with bullets and blood, remains a powerful fallacy. The consequences and effects of war can't be contained so neatly. Stories of war are stories of love, stories of loss and longing, stories of hope. Stories of war are stories of before and after, of inheritance and memory. The best stories of war are so much more than stories of armed conflict. They are stories of humanity.

Here are twelve novels of war that explore exactly that.
 

2016-03-25-1458923517-4949684-PaleHorsePaleRider.jpg
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
While detailing the influenza outbreak of Denver in 1918, Pale Horse, Pale Rider also conveys the waste and horror of the World War I trenches half a world away. A young, skeptical journalist meets a lieutenant about to ship out overseas, and they decide to navigate the madness of home-front America together.
 

2016-03-25-1458923558-898018-coldmountain.jpg
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
This modern epic follows a Confederate deserter home in the waning days of the American Civil War. Using Homer's The Odyssey as a template, Frazier does a masterful job of capturing the war's ravages on civilians just trying to survive it.
 

2016-03-25-1458923594-5020770-HalfofaYellowSun.jpg
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie deftly examines matters of identity and African politics through a wide variety of characters, such as the sophisticate Olanna, the village boy Ugwu, and the British expat Richard. All the while, the Republic of Biafra rises and falls.
 

2016-03-25-1458923613-443481-BillyLynnsLongHalftimeWalk.png
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
A luminous and savage depiction of post-9/11 America, as experienced by one young war hero attending a Dallas Cowboys game.
 

2016-03-25-1458923636-5882754-democracyjoandidion.jpg
Democracy by Joan Didion
To call this a Vietnam novel would be both accurate and far too constraining. Set against the backdrop of the Fall of Saigon, Democracy chronicles an ill-fated romance and the beginning of the end of the American empire.
 

2016-03-25-1458923670-4129947-TheKiteRunner.jpg
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
A contemporary classic. While the complex Afghan social structure and Soviet invasion give this novel its framework, its resonance derives from a lost friendship and a deeply personal quest for redemption.
 

2016-03-25-1458923710-6394974-GirlatWar.jpg
Girl at War by Sara Nović
One young woman's journey through the savageness and ruin of the Balkans in the 1990s, something that the West tried so hard for too long to ignore.
 

2016-03-25-1458923740-3139425-Paradise.jpg
Paradise by Toni Morrison
Beginning with one of literature's most famous openings--"They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time."--Morrison weaves layers and layers of macrohistory into the story of one small all-black town in Oklahoma--including the far-reaching legacy of the Vietnam War.
 

2016-03-25-1458923767-5879793-9780375708442.jpg
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
At once a book about suburban malaise and postwar expectations in 1950s America, Frank and April Wheeler should be a happy, young, American couple. They are anything but.
 

2016-03-25-1458923799-5102662-sonalsorises.jpg
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
A boy's book about drinking and partying? Hardly. Narrator Jake Barnes, suffering from what we'd now call PTSD, grapples for purpose in a postwar world, while Lady Brett Ashley defies societal restrictions time and time again.
 

2016-03-25-1458923832-6065557-9780142180594.jpg
Regeneration by Pat Barker
In the Regeneration trilogy about World War I, Pat Barker set out "to tell something about the parts of war that don't get into the official accounts." Tapping into real-life events, she eloquently explores the psychological and moral consequences of trench warfare.
 

2016-03-25-1458923875-6627789-InCountry.png
In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason
Set in rural Kentucky more than a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, Sam Hughes-- the teenage daughter of a soldier who didn't make it home--seeks out meaning and purpose from the war that took her father.
 

Editor's Note: Matt Gallagher's first novel, Youngblood , about the Iraq War has recently been published by Atria Books.

More Recommendations from Off the Shelf: