How to Tell a War Story

To make sense of bloodshed, writers turn to different genres: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A black-and-white photo of a child playing in the ruins of a building in Afghanistan
Moises Saman / Magnum

Wars, and the humanitarian crises they create, are often reduced to numbers: how many dead, how many ill, how many left behind. The larger the scale, the more impossible the telling of these world-altering events can seem. But different approaches to writing about conflict—fiction and nonfiction, speculation and investigation—can help us try to understand it, its rippling effects, and the questions that arise long after it ends.

In a graphic memoir, Ali Fitzgerald writes about teaching a comics class to refugees in Germany in 2015. She notes that the graphic form can encourage empathy with faceless statistics—and through her book, she asks readers to consider the different ways artists can depict violence. For the most part, her refugee students choose to illustrate the pleasant mundanities of day-to-day life—flowers, landscapes—rather than the horrors they’ve encountered.

Fiction is another powerful tool for showing us how quickly brutality can reach our doorsteps—and for undermining the assumption that certain countries will always be exempt. In Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, a couple must leave their home when it descends into civil strife. Hamid uses ordinary main characters experiencing an everyday love affair to show that destruction, and even apocalypse, can befall anyone. Apocalypse also comes for the characters in Lesley Nneka Arimah’s story collection What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky. Using elements of magical realism and myth (for example, a powerful string of numbers that promises to alleviate suffering but has grave unintended consequences), Arimah paints a bleak picture of humankind, highlighting not just its geopolitical tensions but its interpersonal and intergenerational ones as well.

Investigating conflicts can underscore how long and complicated their aftermaths can be. Patrick Radden Keefe approaches Northern Ireland’s Troubles through the story of one of the 20 or so people who was “disappeared”: Jean McConville, who vanished in 1972 and was never seen alive again. Keefe braids her arc with those of various members of the Irish Republican Army, implicating them in McConville’s disappearance while showing that his subjects’ lives can’t be boiled down into tidy narratives. Likewise, John Okada’s No-No Boy examines how even when a war ends, divisions within individuals and their communities remain. Okada’s novel is about second-generation Japanese Americans in the post-WWII period—some who resisted the draft and were imprisoned, and some who served the U.S. abroad, only to return and face racism and their own questions about loyalty, citizenship, and belonging.

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What We’re Reading

A drawing of a woman


Capturing Europe’s refugee crisis through comics
“[Ali] Fitzgerald holds up different lenses to the refugee crisis, highlighting the tension between the real people she knew and the vast, faceless statistics they represent. She doesn’t employ straightforward realism to bring her subjects to life. Instead Fitzgerald gives individuals iconic features—a gap-toothed smile, a ponytail. She’s also interested in capturing the vertigo of the refugee experience as a whole.”

A young girl pushing a bike in a refugee camp

Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Exit West and the edge of dystopia
“When it comes to the future, [Mohsin Hamid] posits, we will all be migrants, whether we hop from country to country or stay in one place until the day we die. Either way, the world can become unrecognizable in the blink of an eye.”

Photograph of a tornado at sunset

Diego Main / Getty

The powerful pessimism of What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky
“A spirit of willful perseverance suffuses [Lesley Nneka] Arimah’s collection, too, and pulls it back from the brink of total bleakness. Above all, her writing conveys respect for the people who claw their way through relentlessly difficult lives.”

A black-and-white photo of a person with the bottom half of their face covered


How conflicts end—and who can end them
“This story has no heroes, just more and less complicated villains. That mirrors the Troubles, which avoid easy binaries.”

A drawing of hands in front of a face against a yellow background with barbed wire

Penguin Classics

John Okada’s No-No Boy is a test of American character
“In the aftermath of war, veterans of color returned home to resume another war: the domestic one of race and Jim Crow. No-No Boy captures not only the uneasy homecoming of Japanese Americans—hardened by confinement, harboring hostilities, suspicious of others—but also the many complications within the community and on the margins, among Chinese Americans, African Americans, and whites.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Maya Chung. The book she’s reading next is Times Like These, by Rachel Ingalls.

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