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War from a new view

Writing about war is traditionally seen as a male province, but today's female authors tackle it head on, says Arifa Akbar

When we reflect on the greatest war stories in the literary canon, they are tales of horror and heroism that have erupted across history's front lines. They are also – invariably – imagined by men, from The Iliad to Slaughterhouse 5. The assumption, when it comes to war fiction, has been that women can't write about battle because they haven't been there, on the front line.

But what about the astonishing battle scene of El Alamein in Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War? Or Anne Frank's diary? Or the subplot about the suicidal war veteran in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway? Are these not, in their way, stories of war too? If women have been writing about experiences of war on – but, more often, off – the battlefield, they are doing so more than ever before, and often from a man's perspective. Recent novels come from this year's Orange Prize-winner, Madeline Miller, who was inspired by The Iliad to write The Song of Achilles about a homoerotic relationship amid the burning embers of Troy, and Pat Barker, who is returning to World War One (which first emerged as a central theme of her Booker-nominated Regeneration trilogy) with Toby's Room, published next week.

As contemporary female writers visit war, some believe they are imagining it in historically revisionist ways, looking at the forgotten dramas and the smaller, everyday traumas rather than the blunt horror of the killing fields.

Joanna Trollope was among the first to describe this apparently new approach when, as chair of judges for the Orange Prize, she identified several writers on the shortlist to have written about war with men as main characters, and from unexpected standpoints.

"Women tend to be more pacifist because of our protective and nurturing instincts, so we can be slightly more objective about war," she said.

So do women write about war from a different point of view, and how recent a literary trend is this?

Michèle Roberts contests the belief that women have finally arrived at this subject. It has always been in women's writing, she says, but it has often not been interpreted as such, partly because the experience comes at a remove from the front line.

"Conflict called war (between countries) can be related by the novelist to conflict between people. It's only a sexist and bourgeois culture that gives one conflict to men and the other to women. Women serve as soldiers. Women help train soldiers. Women are warriors. So women are not only victims of war."

Her latest novel, Ignorance, revolves around the lives of two girls before and during the Second World War in France. "My family lived in Normandy through occupation. I grew up hearing their stories and, when my mother died, I felt that she was the last survivor of that generation. In a sense, her death freed me [to write about it] but also constrained me [because she couldn't verify the memories]."

Her mother repeatedly mentioned that Roberts' Aunt Marie was forced to leave behind a basket of silver when war arrived, while her grandfather, who worked in the docks in Le Havre, was seen as a collaborator by villagers for having had to work with the Nazis.

These stories ranged fitfully in her mind and demanded untangling. "The novel is investigating how people tell [war] stories, about the shape they give them, and how they make them heroic. I began to read about Jewish history in France, about the 'good family' who hid Jewish people, and it seemed like a fairy tale. I rethought the concepts of survival and heroism and how often [the latter] excluded women."

When Ignorance was reviewed, Roberts noticed it was not described as a story about war, but a story about women. It is this critical misapprehension that Roberts suggests has led to the perception that women don't tackle war in their fiction.

"Jane Austen is often attacked for not being interested in the big issues but when I read her novels, I see she is writing about the battle of Waterloo, men coming home from war, and how middle-class women are dependent on these men." Georgina Harding, whose Orange Prize-shortlisted novel, Painter of Silence, revolved around war and Communism in Romania, wanted the novel to be a meditation on the "passive subjects" of war, and chose to focus on a (deaf and mute) man. Harding's research took her to Romania to hear people's stories. "I was interested in what it was like to be a person in a landscape in which armies march over. I was looking at war from the point of view of the civilians. Whether or not it is a female thing, I don't know."

Like Roberts, Harding thinks that women might be reimagining wars, neither glorifying the concept of heroism nor placing wars at their story's centre, but she also thinks there may be a level playing field between the sexes since women began reporting from front lines, from Martha Gelhorn to Marie Colvin.

"Colvin's last radio report was about a dying baby. Her last written report for The Sunday Times was from a basement of widows. Women are going out there to get stories. What people talk to women [reporters] about may not be the things they talk to men about."