The Women in the Castle is a novel about returning to life following the devastation of WWII. Three women come together in a crumbling Bavarian castle to navigate the new terrain of their lives. The novel skips through time and perspective as these three very different German women come to terms with the choices they made before, during, and after the war.
Marianne is the widow of a resister that was killed after a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. She vowed to her partners in the resistance that she would work to protect their wives and children. Following the war, Marianne locates Ania and Benita and their children. They scrape together a life of hardship and fear, shame and reprisal. Marianne imagines that their shared grief will hold them together, but as difficulties emerge and secrets come to light each of the women is forced to reckon with their loyalty to each other and their principles.
This is a beautiful and tragic novel, full of endurance, compassion, fervency, and submission. I was genuinely surprised by Shattuck’s abilities as a writer. What is most significant about this novel is the author’s use of perspective. Without ever denying the atrocities of the war and Holocuast she is able to remind the reader that these “ordinary Germans” (as the popular parlance goes) were fallible humans, just like us. However, they lacked the benefit of hindsight into their actions. Shattuck does not have her characters offer amends or atonement for their actions though. She presents them as individuals, some of whom got caught in a trap of wanting more for themselves and their country and willing to ignore the consequences. This is a novel about the harm that the war caused the German people, and the miraculous thing about it is that Shattuck was able to write it without lessening the horrors committed against those that were not deemed German.
Jessica Shattuck recently shared in a New York Times editorial that her grandmother was Nazi. Bearing that in mind it is easy to see how The Women in the Castle is a novel that has been a lifetime in the making. Great literature helps us to understand ourselves, our shared past, and our current world, with this novel Jessica Shattuck brought herself closer to understanding her grandmother, not forgiving her but taking a step towards understanding how and why she made the decisions she did. Through her novel, the reader is able to assess both the historical situation within Germany and also reflect on their own character and decisions. The Women in the Castle is a novel that humbly serves the phrase “Never Again” as it tasks its readers to question exactly how they may act and what the ultimate costs of those actions could be all in the quest of wanting more for themselves and their country.
*If you are an audiobook lover or just interested in checking them out, Libro.fm will be giving away digital copies of The Women in the Castle (along with several other titles) on April 29th for Independent Bookstore Day. Check out our Bookstore Day story for more details.
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"Moving . . . a plot that surprises and devastates."—New York Times Book Review
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