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The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

BOTTOM LINE: One of the best books of 2017

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 28 March 2017
Source: Publisher

Synopsis from the Publisher:

Three women, haunted by the past and the secrets they hold.

Set at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined—an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel from the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Hazards of Good Breeding.

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once-grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resister murdered in the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

First Marianne rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of her dearest childhood friend, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together, they make their way across the smoldering wreckage of their homeland to Berlin, where Martin’s mother, the beautiful and naive Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers. Then she locates Ania, another resister’s wife, and her two boys, now refugees languishing in one of the many camps that house the millions displaced by the war.

As Marianne assembles this makeshift family from the ruins of her husband’s resistance movement, she is certain their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that the black-and-white, highly principled world of her privileged past has become infinitely more complicated, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart. Eventually, all three women must come to terms with the choices that have defined their lives before, during, and after the war—each with their own unique share of challenges.

Written with the devastating emotional power of The Nightingale, Sarah’s Key, and The Light Between Oceans, Jessica Shattuck’s evocative and utterly enthralling novel offers a fresh perspective on one of the most tumultuous periods in history. Combining piercing social insight and vivid historical atmosphere, The Women in the Castle is a dramatic yet nuanced portrait of war and its repercussions that explores what it means to survive, love, and, ultimately, to forgive in the wake of unimaginable hardship.”

My Thoughts: There are hundreds, if not thousands, of novels that occur before or during World War II and cover Hitler’s rise to power and his “Final Solution.” Some are excellent, others are decent. All arouse disgust and horror at the atrocities man is able to commit against his fellow man. Yet, very few explore the war’s aftermath in war-torn Germany, let alone the idea of countrywide guilt, even though it is the natural segue for such stories. After all, the Allies decimated the German countryside as they advanced towards Berlin and the images of bombed-out towns and women picking through the rubble are indelible images from that era. They also fail to cover denazification process and the sticky ideological issues this raises. This lack of insight into this post-war period, as told from a German perspective, makes Jessica Shattuck’s truly excellent The Women in the Castle an excellent source to fill the void.

Marianne, Benita, and Ania are three very different women, so much so that you would think that living together in a decrepit old castle would cause friction. The only things these women have in common are the fact that they are all war widows and mothers, wives of the men who attempted to assassinate Hitler in an effort to end the war and save their country. Marianne is the natural leader of the group, a woman who does not take no for an answer and with a strong belief system that sees no shades of grey in any situation. Benita is the follower to Marianne’s leadership, the peasant to Marianne’s royal bloodline, and the beauty to Marianne’s brains. Ania is the quiet tie that binds the women together, neither peasant nor royal, and educated in the ways of making something out of nothing. Together, the three women raise their children and deal with the ravages of the country and to their identity as German citizens.

Told in four major sections – pre-war, post-war 1945, post-war 1950, and 1991 – we see the women’s journeys from the beginning to the end. We see what brings them to the castle, what they experienced before they arrived, and how they handled the burgeoning German economic improvements. The character development is strong, and all three women are vibrant and damaged and worthy of attention.

This is not just a story of survival though. It is also an exploration of guilt, individual and collective. Through the women’s experiences, we see a country trying to make sense of the atrocities done in their name and by their own. The three women are a microcosm of the German citizens, and their own individual levels of guilt mirror that of their countrymen. As they wrestle with their own sense of purpose in light of such senseless violence and loss, one gets a greater understanding of just how complicated post-war Germany was. Ms. Shattuck handles such difficult scenes with care, allowing readers to follow along on the women’s psychological journeys and form their own opinions about guilt and innocence during a time period when it would be so easy to proclaim all German citizens guilty for the war and the Holocaust.

For every person who has ever wondered just how someone like Hitler could rise to power or how German citizens could let the Holocaust happen, The Women in the Castle is for you. Granted, the story occurs AFTER the end of the war, but the three women provide insight into the typical German mindset during Hitler’s rise to power as well as during the war. Where the story shines though is the war’s aftermath as seen through three widows. Their collective story shines a light on one country’s collective guilt and the lasting psychological damage the wartime atrocities wrought on an entire generation.

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