If you’re looking for a story with characters who happen to live in a time of war and who take the circumstances as they come, trying to make the best of it, I would recommend this 1950 book by Nevil Shute, which was voted a place on the BBC’s 2003’s list of “the nation’s 100 best-loved novels”. Although the heroine is British and her story concerns British colonialism in the Asian country of Malaysia, the hero is Australian and his life in the wilds of Australia can be likened to our own history of pioneer settlement.
The amount of brutality in the book appears less in comparison to narratives of current crime fiction, or compared to stories of rape and murder in Darfur. However, Shute based his novel on true experiences of women and men who were Japanese prisoners in World War II. While the brutality may have been less horrific, more than 16,000 men died building the Burma railway for the Japanese, through sickness and exhaustion and malnutrition. And the experience of the women prisoners in the novel also happened, although in Sumatra, not Malaysia. Shute shows their suffering and how they died quietly one by one.
In the end, it is Shute’s essential humanity that resonates in his fiction and keeps your interest, even when the characters have the prejudices of an earlier era. That’s how he keeps them alive. When they come to a crossroads, they do everything they can – like when Joe sees Jean being beaten, and when Jean sees the world pushing Joe away from her. We want them to act, and we also want to act as they do, knowing our limitations but still risking everything for the things that count.