In the aftermath of World War II, three widowed women find themselves seeking refuge and protection within the walls of an old Bavarian castle which used to play host to the aristocracy of Germany. Marianne von Lingenfels, whose husband was executed after a failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, is trying to fulfill a promise to a childhood friend, to protect and shelter the wives and children of the resisters should their plans fail. She takes young Benita and pragmatic Ania under her wing, certain that their shared pain and loss will bind them together. But she must come to terms with the weight of secrets and guilt that will haunt the women and their children for years to follow.
This novel by Jessica Shattuck begins with a lot of promise. Readers are introduced to Marianne at a party in the castle before the war, mingling with the upper echelons of German society. She is portrayed as a determined, forthright young woman who is fully committed to resisting Hitler’s growing efforts to rid Germany of “undesirables”. We then skip forward to 1945, as Marianne throws her considerable connections and wealth into tracking down the scattered widows left behind by the failed resistance effort. The chapters then proceed to include the perspectives of the two women that are “rescued” by Marianne. Benita, a young and beautiful woman who unknowingly married a member of the German resistance; and Ania who was the wife of a Polish diplomat but lives in fear of a secret being discovered.
The perspectives of the latter two women are far more interesting than that of Marianne. Once she is fully described as being a forceful presence who takes it for granted that everyone shares her opinions, Marianne isn’t given much to do. Far more compelling is the character of Benita, who never had any allegiance to the German resistance and finds Marianne’s patriotic fervor uncomfortable to duplicate. The third woman, Ania, is equally intriguing, especially as more and more of her history during the war is revealed. All three of these women are devoted to their children, and in the beginning these are the ties that bind them.
There are scores of historical fiction novels that deal with the second World War from a myriad of perspectives. With the glut of available literature, it can be difficult to find a viewpoint that raises new questions. Here, Shattuck succeeds in giving voice to the women who found different ways of surviving Hitler’s Germany and its aftermath. All of them have either seen or committed horrible acts in the name of protecting themselves and their children. They find themselves being slowly gnawed upon by the never-ending guilt that settled on their shoulders and indeed that of the entire country in the years following the war. Shattuck wisely avoids laying either blame or absolution on any of her characters, instead allowing her readers to reach those conclusions for themselves.
The first two thirds of The Women in the Castle focus on the years 1943-1950. This is easily the most interesting portion of the novel. The last one hundred pages or so skips forward to the year 1991, and here the suspense that has been building since the beginning is entirely lost. Jessica Shattuck seems very intent on hammering home the point that the wounds inflicted on the German psyche during World War II bear lasting scars to those who lived during this time. Unfortunately, this grinds the narrative to a halt and never fully manages to get back up to speed before the end of the book. Dealing with the ideas of guilt and redemption while it is still fresh in the minds of those who experienced it is a far more interesting idea than looking back on those years through the haze of forty years.
Overall, I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. It raised some interesting points when it comes to the repercussions of love, culpability, and surviving through hardships.
My rating: 3.5/5
Happy reading everyone!