The Women in the Cas­tle: A Novel

Jes­si­ca Shattuck

  • Review
By – December 19, 2017

Jes­si­ca Shat­tuck, a jour­nal­ist and author of two pre­vi­ous nov­els, has said that she was com­pelled to write The Women in the Cas­tle because of the deep sense of shame she felt regard­ing her Ger­man her­itage. The result is a grip­ping, inci­sive and deeply heart-open­ing nov­el. Set pri­mar­i­ly in Ger­many before, dur­ing and after World War II, much of the sto­ry is told in flash­backs that allow us glimpses of the lives of three women and their chil­dren who were bound togeth­er by their expe­ri­ences dur­ing the Nazi era.

The sto­ry begins at the site of a Bavar­i­an cas­tle in 1938, with detailed descrip­tions of the sweep­ing opu­lence of the pre-war days in Ger­many among a cer­tain class of land­ed aris­to­crats. Count­ess Mar­i­anne von Lin­gen­fels is host­ing her family’s annu­al par­ty, at which men wear­ing Nazi insignia parade casu­al­ly through the grounds, drinks and canapés in hand, while in the inner sanc­tum a small group of intense young men, includ­ing Marianne’s hus­band, are plot­ting armed resis­tance against the nation’s leader, who they con­sid­er to be a thug and a madman.

The nov­el then advances to the year 1945. The war has end­ed and the con­spir­a­tors have been exe­cut­ed after their failed attempt to assas­si­nate Hitler. Mar­i­anne, rais­ing three chil­dren by her­self, cre­ates an odd new fam­i­ly by bring­ing to the cas­tle the wid­ows and chil­dren of the mur­dered men. Dev­as­tat­ed by trau­ma, bro­ken by the depri­va­tions and bru­tal­i­ty they suf­fered in the war, and bur­dened by their own guilt; they join Mar­i­anne and her chil­dren with the hope of recov­er­ing from their suf­fer­ing and loss, and find­ing peace in the after­math of war.

How they rec­on­cile their very dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences, oppor­tu­ni­ties for sur­vival, and over­ar­ch­ing sen­si­bil­i­ties and world­views is one of the major dri­ving forces of the nov­el. We see the women grap­ple with pri­vate wounds and painful secrets, each respond­ing in her own way to the pres­sures of liv­ing under fas­cist rule. Shattuck’s deep and dark his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion takes the read­er on a jour­ney of sur­pris­ing twists and turns, into a sub­tle explo­ration of a war-haunt­ed com­mu­ni­ty where lives can be rebuilt, but only with one another’s help.

At its core, the book rais­es anew an old ques­tion: how did good peo­ple become Nazis? It seeks to find answers that con­tain suf­fi­cient insight and empa­thy to sat­is­fy the book’s read­ers, Jew and gen­tile alike. In so doing, the book joins a rel­a­tive­ly new sub­genre of fic­tion that includes the pop­u­lar book The Nightin­gale by Kristin Han­nah, and its more lit­er­ary pre­cur­sor Stones from the Riv­er by Ursu­la Hegi, both of which show the effects of the war on ordi­nary” Ger­mans, with the goal of illu­mi­nat­ing shared suf­fer­ing. These books employ a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive than the one more com­mon­ly found in Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture that focus­es on the lives of Jew­ish victims.

Shat­tuck exhibits excel­lent sto­ry­telling skills and allows fine­ly embroi­dered emo­tion­al truth to col­or this book with grace, imbu­ing it with a sat­is­fy­ing sense of real­i­ty. We come to under­stand not just the peo­ple but the cir­cum­stances that shad­ed their choic­es and brought them to their destinies.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

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