Last Witnesses: Unchildlike Stories review: Harrowing accounts of war

Svetlana Alexievich gives glimpses of hell in her latest ‘living history’ of the Soviet Union

In contrast to women or men, children can rarely be more than war’s stunned witnesses: they cannot take up arms or tools and alter its course.

In contrast to women or men, children can rarely be more than war’s stunned witnesses: they cannot take up arms or tools and alter its course.

Svetlana Alexievich’s first book, The Unwomanly Face of War, was published in the USSR in 1985 after years of censorship by the Soviet authorities, and went on to sell millions. To write it, Alexievich travelled around the USSR as a journalist for several years in the late 1970s, recording the voices of women who had lived through (and often fought in) the second World War.

The polyphonic choral history she constructed from the amassed testimonies stands apart from the countless books that have been written about the war, not only for its simple-but-radical idea of focusing on female wartime experience, but for the power and novelty of its narrative method. For my money, it’s up there with the greatest books ever written about war.

In Unwomanly Face and the five books Alexievich has written since, vast historical events are narrated by hundreds of voices which become one voice. Her work reads as if the soul of great Russia is rearing up to speak of the terrible, brave, cruel and pitiful things it has seen and done. Each subject is allowed to speak in her own words, with authorial input largely restricted to sequencing and editing the transcripts.

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