Title: The Women of the Castle (also published as: The Women in the Castle)
Expected publication: 18 May 2017
“To me, you can learn as much about looking at complicity as you can at resistance. [...] I hope that readers will come away with a sense of the complexity of life at that time and the decisions people made and didn’t make.” (Jessica Shattuck)
Told from the perspective of three different women, The Women of the Castle focuses mainly on the immediate aftermath of WWII, when people are trying to come to terms with the realities of the atrocities committed during Hitler’s reign, and their part in them, either as willing participants or passive bystanders. Only one of the women, Marianne von Lingenfels, can truly say that she had an active part in the resistance movement and the plot to assassinate Hitler, which ultimately left her a widow. Marianne is a woman who sees the world as black and white, which earned her the nickname “The Judge” as a child – there is good, and there is evil, and no shade of grey in between. One is either guilty, or not.
Inaction was impossible. Once you knew – really knew – of the women and children being shot in the woods, of the shower rooms constructed for the sole purpose of killing, how could you not act?
Her moral principles guide her every action, and she takes her responsibilities very seriously. When she is tasked to take care of the widows and children of fallen resistance fighters, she uses everything in her power to bring them to Lingenfels Castle, where they are safe amidst the tumult of post-war Germany. It is this promise that makes her collect two women from the occupied territories: Benita, who is the young widow of Marianne’s best childhood friend and fellow resistance fighter Connie; and Ania, the widow of a Polish foreign officer. Both women arrive with their children in tow, and the group find shelter in the old castle ruin. Bit by bit the reader gets to know each of the women’s backgrounds, their fate during the war years and their most intimate thoughts and feelings – and there are a few surprises in store!
The Women of the Castle was one of those books that evoked so much emotional turmoil whilst reading it that I had to sit quietly for a few days afterwards and sort those feelings before being able to put my thoughts into words. Wow – this was one powerful story! I am a bit of a sucker for WWII fiction, but in a vast choppy sea of war stories there are only a few true beacons of light that manage to shine through the darkness and stand out. I feel privileged that this year I already managed to discover two such books, and The Women of the Castle is one of them (the other was All the Light WeCannot See, by Anthony Doerr).
In a former job I worked with clients who were holocaust survivors or forced labourers in Germany during the war and was deeply moved by their individual tales of survival. What inspired me most of all was their capacity for forgiveness, and their courage to forge a new beginning after staring into the abyss of human depravity. The Women of the Castle brought back a lot of those stories for me, and most of all I reflected on the ethical and moral dilemmas each of the women faces. Guilt (even by association) and blame feature strongly in the book, as they did in the immediate post-war years, when the world still reeled from horror of discovering the sheer scale of atrocities committed in Hitler’s name.
It was so ugly. The peace and plenty of this time were like a thin quilt spread over a pile of shit. No one was innocent.
I have read only few books which focus on the immediate post-war period, and I loved the way the author explores the topic open-mindedly and without trying to judge or lay blame. As intended, I continuously asked myself the question: if faced with a similar situation, would I speak up? Would I risk my own life and that of my children to stand up for what is right? It is easy to judge people of that time from my own high horse of living a sheltered life in democracy and peace. I would love to be able to say: Of course I would! But would I? As a mother, would I not try to protect my children at all cost, even if it meant turning a blind eye? The Women of the Castle opens an emotional minefield of moral and ethical dilemmas I am glad I have never had to face. I personally was deeply touched by the character of Franz Muller, a German man who had fought in the war and was unable to forgive himself or allow himself to ever feel happiness again. His story could have been that of my grandfather, who narrowly escaped with his life from the Russian front, only to find that living with the things he had seen and done in the war was a daily burden he could never totally escape from.
The Women of the Castle is a powerful, thought-provoking and insightful story which took me out of my comfort zone and awoke a true rollercoaster ride of emotions in me that haunted me for days. Questions of moral and ethical dilemmas would pop into my head at the most inopportune moments, causing me to pause and reflect on my own convictions and beliefs. Absolutely everyone should read this book! War and atrocities are still going on all around us, and we have become immune to the flickering horrors on our TV screens every evening. It is one thing to judge from our high horse of privilege, and another to truly understand what motivates people to act the way they do in the hope that we can recognise the potential of destructiveness in ourselves and consciously choose a different path. The Women of the Castle is a non-judgmental account of three women faced with often impossible choices. Fully recommended!
When things are so outside human experience, you really can’t believe it, you need to deny, because all of us have the capacity to be sadistical and horrible to other people. The potential of destructiveness is in all of us. (Lydia Tischler, holocaust survivor)
Only when we prove that international law and the human rights of all mankind are greater than any villain can we vanquish evil.
History was horrible, a long, sloppy tail of grief. It swished destructively behind the present, toppling everyone’s own personal understanding of the past.
There is nothing she can do about this now. Your actions are your actions. At the end of your life you have done what you have done.
As a German, she knows that if you start poking through a shoebox of photographs, you’ll find Nazi uniforms and swastikas and children with their arms in Heil Hitler salutes.
With their language of “extermination” and “elimination”, they could not come close to conjuring this. How could they? There was no point of reference. Later, such footage would come to be so familiar it became unseen – kind of placeholder for human evil.
Read about Jessica Shattucks own personal connection to the story here
Read a conversation between Christina Baker-Kline and Jessica Shattuck about The Women of the Castle here
Jessica Shattuck's website
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel and giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.