Alexievich’s introduction is worth the book’s cost alone. Anyone who has ever elicited important stories or traumatic remembrances ought to read it ... Like all soldiers, they lost limbs; sanity fled their minds like messenger pigeons. They also buried brothers, fathers, sisters, cousins, and in some cases, lovers, all this recorded beautifully by Alexievich, who guides us from interview to interview in brief italicized sections. Layering the quotations, and then moving on to a new theme: fear, love, victory, remembrance ... Thousands upon thousands of them came home, and in this frightening and lacerating book — as beautiful as a ruined cathedral — Alexievich has turned their voices into history’s psalm.
This is a tough read, both emotionally and intellectually. But it would be hard to find a book that feels more important or original. There’s a visceral anger in Alexievich’s introduction that’s rare in any history book ... Tempting though it is, this is a difficult book to read in one gulp. Alexievich presents this as oral history: fragments of conversation that are not always rooted in specific events and don’t carry the dates of battles next to them. This is an incredibly powerful way of bringing history to life. These women spoke to her as friends and treated her more as confessor than journalist and historian ... Her achievement is as breathtaking as the experiences of these women are awe-inspiring.
The book is composed of oral histories Alexievich gathered in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Alexievich weaves their testimonies together until their individual voices become a haunting chorus ... In undertaking the hundreds of interviews that led to this vast, emotionally riveting account, the author wants us to consider the women’s voices ... The deceptively simple form Alexievich deploys allows for an emotional range from utter despair to a kind of transcendent hope.
The author unearths a mostly buried aspect of Russian history. There’s a great deal that’s moving and memorable about the hardships described. But it’s possible to read this book and have reservations about it ... Many of the author’s interviews, in this book and others, are repetitive in their facts and their tone. An original voice is rare. Is Alexievich a gifted, probing interviewer? It’s hard to say. Her own questions are rarely included ... It’s possible to hold these reservations in mind and still recognize a kind of greatness in the amplitude of Alexievich’s project ... The shock and sadness in The Unwomanly Face of War are, at times, crushing. You may wind up feeling like the young female soldier Alexievich interviews who says, 'We no longer wept, because in order to weep you also need strength.'”
...a revelation; although we now know a lot more about the war, Alexievich’s text gives us precious details of the kind that breathe life into history ... As well as showing her readers the war through women’s eyes, Alexievich gives us an idea of how the army women were perceived by society, during the war and afterwards ... If one were to believe the book, all its subjects went to war as volunteers. Yet we now know that the majority of women soldiers received call-up notices and had no choice. Another silence worries me more. The phenomenon of sexual harassment was extremely common in the Red Army during the war, and numerous testimonies are now available. This subject comes up only once in Alexievich’s book ... This is a book about emotions as much as it is about facts. It is not a historical document in the accepted sense: there are few dates or places mentioned, and often the speakers are not identified. And yet ultimately, which historical documents are more important than this? These voices, thanks to Alexievich, have themselves become part of history.
...[a] magnificent and harrowing chronicle ... Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s fluent translation of a revised edition of this first book in the series breathes new life into the memories of the war’s female combatants ... Distilling her interviews into immersive monologues, Alexievich presents less a straightforward oral history of World War II than a literary excavation of memory itself ... Resurrecting the ghosts of both the early 1980s and her Soviet self, Alexievich includes several passages that the censors cut and even some that she independently threw out. Her admission of 'my self-censorship, my own ban' points to the culture of silence that may have dissuaded the Soviet Union’s female combatants from telling their stories for themselves. By recalling her own self-silencing, Alexievich takes a place among her subjects and masterfully sets out to correct the record.
The Unwomanly Face of War is both a tribute to what these women endured and a justification of what they chose to do. If there can be a feminist defense of mass violence, this book delivers it … Should there be a distinction between a woman writing as a historian, and a historian writing as a woman? Alexievich is frank about making the latter choice, and about her lack of interest in military history proper, in the sense of weapons, battles, or strategy. She is writing a history of ‘little people,’ and of feelings rather than events … If the Russian soul is formed by suffering, as Alexievich contends, it is suffering that has been given an unforgettable voice.
Whole visual sequences are crammed into short phrases, each straining to unfold into a world of its own. Indeed, the reading experience isn’t just visual, it’s cinematic, with scenes shifting rapidly, but the larger themes staying the same: love, death, suffering. And yet, while The Unwomanly Face of War is cinematic, it isn’t a typical epic war film. It doesn’t force itself on the reader, doesn’t shout. The remembrances of female soldiers are punctuated by Alexievich’s reflections on her project as a writer … Alexievich enables these women to present themselves as they remember themselves, not as Soviet ideology dreamed them to be.
Even when their names are withheld, that first-person 'I' burns in a way that numbers can’t. But one would be mistaken to read this as pure journalism. In fact, it’s pure literary technique. Alexievich assembles her works of documentary literature like a composer, orchestrating material from thousands of hours of tape-recorded interviews; her sense of structure is idiosyncratic, lyrical, flowing, extremely readable. Every chapter is a movement, every interviewee an instrument ... It’s a vision of war as an engine of countless individual tragedies and traumas, its survivors haunted by what they saw and did, and obsessed by what could have been. Perhaps just as importantly, it’s a vision that refuses to abide by the internalized logic of war—to think in tactics, statistics, and outcomes, or to draw a conclusion that dehumanizes and justifies the means.
With scrupulous respect for the service these women gave, Ms. Alexievich identifies each by specialism and rank. But she imposes neither pattern nor hierarchy ... The unique style that won [the Nobel] prize is on display throughout this book. Ms. Alexievich’s gentle, open-hearted writing is perfect for conveying shattered memories and tortured lives. But it creates a hypnotic trance of its own, and we should not overlook its problems. Confabulation is one of these. By giving credit to each testimony—her approach leaves little choice—the author denies us the opportunity to ask wider questions ... Ms. Alexievich’s war book is shattering, then, but besides a touch of rose-tint it is patently nostalgic. The mood will draw all readers in, hypnotized by the vanished world.
The stories — translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky — are abundant, compelling and fresh. But we learn little about most of the women beyond their names, military titles and quotations. Alexievich’s editing leaves little room to describe their faces, their families, their homes — the context of their stories. It leads to a sometimes choppy format that calls out for more narration.
...[a] harrowing and moving account ... The Unwomanly Face of War tells the story of these forgotten women, and its great achievement is that it gives credit to their contribution but also to the hell they endured ... Alexievich did an enormous service, recovering these stories. The outsize Soviet role in defeating the Nazi army and liberating Europe is often neglected. If men who fought on the eastern front have gotten short shrift, how much truer of the women. As a female rifleman scrawled in charcoal on the Reichstag: 'You were defeated by a Russian girl from Saratov.' That may be an overstatement, but it is not altogether untrue.
Her years of meticulous listening, her unobtrusiveness and her ear for the telling detail and the memorable story have made her an exceptional witness to modern times. Critics have objected to the lack of all but brief interlinking passages, but if anything the few that are there intrude: the effect of this seamless flow of voices is one of immediacy. Like Delbo’s Auschwitz and After, Alexievich’s book is a map not of events but of the character and emotions of those involved in them. This is oral history at its finest and it is also an essay on the power of memory, on what is remembered and what is forgotten. 'It’s terrible to remember,' one woman told her. 'But it’s far more terrible to forget.'”
Alexievich writes movingly of how these extremely strong, now-elderly women had rarely been encouraged to tell their stories, but they eventually opened up under her gentle questioning and attention ... Moreover, beyond their military prowess, of which they were very proud, the women offer touching, intimate details about their service—e.g., being assigned too-large boots and clothing, the shame of having to wear men’s underwear and managing their periods, finding love, and the ability to feel empathy for the starving German children after the war. Essential reading full of remarkable emotional wealth.