Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The Women in the Castle

Author: Jessica Shattuck
Genre: Historical Fiction (WWII)
Type: ebook
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Bonnier Zaffre (UK)
First Published: May 18, 2017 (UK), March 28, 2017 (Canada)
First Line: "The day of the countess's famous harvest party began with a driving rain that hammered down on all the ancient von Lingenfels castle's sore spots - springing leaks, dampening floors, and turning its yellow facade a slick, beetle-like black."

Book Description from GoodReadsSet 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 na├»ve 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. 

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 Rating: 4 stars

My Review: I've always been drawn to books set during WWII and after awhile you think you've read it all --  and then The Women in the Castle comes along. Shattuck is a talented storyteller who has woven her plot around the perspective of three widows during the war. These women are very different, not always likable to the reader, but they firmly agree that Hitler's view of Germany is not their own. Their stories are compelling as they try to keep their families safe and fed during the war and later as they struggle with their guilt, grief and forgiveness. 

The story is told via multiple characters and time frames but the plot and writing flows easily. Readers will quickly become invested in these three women as they struggle to pick up the pieces after the assassination attempt on Hitler fails. Times are hard, people are starving, everyone is suspicious of everyone else and yet its during this tumultuous time that an unlikely bond is formed between Marianne, Ania and Benita. Temperaments clash, emotions run high making their new friendships tenuous and when secrets are revealed the women deal with the stress, abuse, deprivations and even collusion in different ways and with varying results. 

The strength of this book is in its storytelling, it's rich characterizations and Shattuck's focus on the rise of Nazism through the eyes of German citizens. Many people wonder how the German people could allow Hitler to take control and commit such atrocities and I think Shattuck opens the door to that discussion. I found the post-war scenes most illuminating as regular citizens struggled with guilt over their complicity, not acknowledging the horrors around them at the time or not resisting enough. War isn't always black and white.  It's scary, confusing and murky at best and while the atrocities committed in the name of Nazism are not condoned, Shattuck shows her readers how regular people could get caught up in the constant rhetoric, deprivation and all-encompassing fear that pervaded Germany at the time.

This is a well-written story shows the strength and resiliency of women during extreme times. I applaud the author's unique and fresh perspective on a very popular genre and era. This book would be an excellent book club selection.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Bonnier Zaffre (UK) for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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