One of the last novels this pedometer geek read was an Advanced Reader’s Edition of Jessica Shuttuck’s The Women in the Castle. It was received from the publisher through a Bookperks giveaway, and the book was just released on the 28th of March. This is the extended review.
The Women in the Castle
by Jessica Shattuck
Published by William Morrow, 2017
an imprint of HarperCollins Publisher
Set before, during, and after World War II, this is a sweeping historical novel of (primarily) three women who lived through the atrocities of Hitler and the war in Germany. Set in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to German high society, it is a story that sheds a different light on the war.
Marianne von Lingenfels, Benita Flederman, and Ania Grarbarek are three very different women, and each has a unique story to tell, lies to conceal, and families to rear in difficult times. The three come together, all living in a cold, drafty castle in Germany as their lives, as they knew it, are forever changed in the aftermath of the devastating events of the war.
Resistor and newly widowed Marianne feels it is her duty to protect and save those who have become displaced by the Nazis and the war itself.
Benita is the wife of Marianne’s childhood friend, Constantine (known as Connie), and is the first of the women that Marianne knows she must save. Like her own husband Albrecht, Connie was hanged in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. On the night of the last harvest party at the castle, Connie asked her to protect the women and children, particularly to watch out for Benita and his son Martin if anything should happen to him. In a sense, that mandate to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows, sets the story in motion.
Ania is a woman who is escaping the Russian soldiers marching east even as the German soldiers are marching west. Caught between opposing forces, she and her children find protection under Marianne’s roof. Of the three she struck this reader as the most resilient of them all.
The trio of women and their children form a kind of family, yet it’s often an uneasy alliance because each of the women hides secrets from the others. Bonds are formed; lives become intertwined and are transformed in the story that spans nearly sixty years. Redemptive and poignant, painful and hopeful, this historical novel shows another side to the war and how much it impacted the lives of ordinary and not-so-ordinary citizens living during a tumultuous time.
Overall, this novel reminded this reader of Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key, a story that still remains firmly in my memory, and one that I continue to recommend. The same is true about Shattuck’s novel; it is a highly recommended read. Since finishing this novel, I read that the author’s grandmother and mother had similar experiences in the war, which explains the why the novel feels so real, so personal. As it says in the acknowledgments, she listened to the stories of her grandmother and aunt. To me, it also explains the dedication, which is in memory of her mother and grandmother.
There are several quotes from the prologue that could be interpreted as being ripped out of today’s headlines, which this reader found chilling. Here are a few of them:
“I urge you to beware of our leadership’s aggression versus If we are not vigilant, our leader’s aggressive intentions will only be the beginning…” (page 3)
“…was being run by a loudmouthed rabble-rouser, bent on baiting other nations to war and making life miserable for countless innocent citizens.” (page 10)
“This man–the zealot who calls himself our leader–will ruin everything we have achieved as a united nation.” (page 12)
One small nitpicky thing: On the next-to-last-page (354), “The original cross Franz Muller carved into the trunk has grown out of sight, and there is a new one, a stripe he gouged into the bark maybe fifteen years ago, which itself has moved up.” While this reader understands that it was a plot device to underscore the significance of this tree, the reality is that a tree grows up and outward, but the trunk stays in the same position and that includes any carvings. It may have been corrected in the final edition, but this reader suspects otherwise.
On the other hand, this reader will be looking to read other books by this author. Jessica Shattuck has a few other titles.