The Women in the Castle, Jessica Shattuck: Book Review

A new, thought-provoking look at the effects of World War II.

the women in the castle jessica shattuck book review
The Women in the Castle Book Cover The Women in the Castle
Jessica Shattuck
Historical Fiction
William Morrow
March 28, 2017
358

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 resistor 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 naïve Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers. Then she locates Ania, another resistor’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.

While I haven’t read a lot of historical fiction novels, I can say, without a doubt, that The Women in the Castle is an astonishing read. Jessica Shattuck immediately pulls you into the war-time era of Germany, keeping you captive with worry and anticipation over the looming horrors of World War II.

However, The Women in the Castle is not your average World War II story. Expertly written, Shattuck describes the complexities of war and the unbearable choices that people were forced to make in order to survive. How does war change a person? How do you forget the horrors of the past? How far will a woman go to save her children? What would you do for a better life if you had nothing ahead of you? What shapes a person’s identity? Is it possible to love someone regardless of what they have done in the past?

This review contains spoilers

This is an ARC review of Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle, which releases March 28, 2017.

 

Told from the perspective of three women and, occasionally, their children, The Women in the Castle tells a tale of survival, each one detailing a different aspect of World War II. Each chapter provides a different woman’s viewpoint of events as they happen to her. Shattuck’s variety in style and form provides a wonderfully insightful look at each character from a number of different angles. As you move through the novel, you learn about Marrianne, deemed “the commander of the wives and children”; Benita, the clueless, beautiful wife of a resistance leader; and Ania, the woman who will do anything to make sure her children survive.

Through shifts in perspective and time, you slowly uncover all of the secrets about each woman and her role in the war. Furthermore, you discover what it means to survive with the demons of your past haunting your every action. Full of denial and shame, The Women in the Castle details what it meant to be a German after World War II. It offers insight into how those who were not a part of the resistance movement against Hitler dealt with the horrors they faced during the war.

For the longest time, Freddy said, I could not grasp what I was looking at. I saw it, but I couldn’t take it in. It was – he groped for an analogy, his pale face haggard with the effort – it was like one of those hidden pictures: you see a goblet not a face, a stairway not a flower, you can’t even see it when its right there in front of you. And then suddenly – he raised his eyes and looked directly at Marianne – you do. — Excerpt taken from The Women in the Castle

Immediately, through Shattuck’s concise, yet descriptive language, you are pulled into Germany as it was before, during and after the war. Beginning at Burg Lingenfels, the castle that brings Marianne, Benita and Ania together, the story of each woman’s survival unfolds. Full of mystery, horror, and suspense, Shattuck’s novel keeps you on edge, anticipation driving you forward to uncover the truth behind the lies that Benita and Ania tell in order to keep themselves safe, protected and happy.

Identities shift and transform as the events of the novel unfold. From the early days of scavenging and hiding out in the castle, better off than the rest of Germany as they have food, shelter and warmth, Marianne, Benita and Ania begin their new lives as free women. Despite the different situations that have brought them together, and in part, because of them, the three women create strong bonds and develop a makeshift family.

As Germany begins to transform in the post-war reconstruction era, each woman’s life changes. They move upward and away from the castle, but they never forget what brought them together in the first place. At the heart of The Women in the Castle is a story about the scarring nature of the past. In the hope of forgetting, each woman seeks a new identity and a new life. Through the lives of each woman, Shattuck explores the different thoughts, feelings, and emotions that Germany had to deal with following the war, and it’s as devastating and heart-breaking as it sounds.

The book also describes the true motivations that allowed Hitler to rise to power. If you have ever questioned how the German population could support Hitler and his crimes, one answer is simply that they didn’t realize how horrible things were until it was too late. Hope and later, denial, colored their thoughts. Through Ania, Shattuck explores how the German population was persuaded to stand with Hitler – opportunity, and prosperity for those who lived in poverty and wanted to move away from their small town homes. In short, hope and the opportunity for success, along with a duty in life, drove many to support his ideologies.

Benita represents the oppressed woman, looked after only for her beauty. Despite her attempts to find a place for herself in life, she is only able to live for love. Through Benita, Shattuck explores the power of love and its ability to affect one’s life. Benita is a woman who is hopeful and positive, but only when she is around others. Despite her capability to do good for others, Benita represents the abused woman who has no true voice in society. Out of all of the stories told in The Women in the Castle, Benita’s is truly devastating as it represents the search for a new identity in a world full of harsh realities and expectations.

Marianne represents the rebel and leader. Despite her attempts to do good for others, she represents the cruel side of society. Unable to get past her qualms with others for their actions in the past until it is too late, Marianne must live life with regret and sometimes, loneliness. Through Marianne, Shattuck explores the need for intelligence, compassion, and acceptance when coming to terms with the people who were involved in World War II.

From detailed descriptions of landscapes, events and the realities of war, to the unique voices and backgrounds of the characters, Shattuck’s latest is a beautiful look at what historical fiction should be. Full of mystery and anticipation, this novel will set you on edge and keep you reading until the very end. In detailing the unknown parts of history that surround World War II, Shattuck gives us a clear look at just how much Germany suffered following Hitler’s regime. Carefully crafted and beautifully written, The Women in the Castle is a true historical read, full of new information and insight into the effects of the devastating and horrific war on the lives of German citizens that did not realize what was truly happening until it was too late to make a difference.

 If this is what historical fiction is supposed to be, I definitely want to read more. Reading The Women in the Castle was a breathtaking and remarkable journey that will stay with me for years to come.


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Written by Melissa Ratcliff

Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.