BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, April 2017
What was Germany like for regular citizens in the months and years after World War II? In the enthralling The Women in the Castle, Jessica Shattuck paints a portrait of a postwar country wracked with guilt and confusion, trying to regroup and rebuild even as Allied forces require Germans to watch footage of the liberation of Buchenwald and paper villages with photos of concentration camp victims. In this uncertain world, where many Germans still believe these actions to be propaganda and don’t yet understand the full horror of what has transpired, three women come together through unlikely connections.
Marianne von Lingenfels is an aristocrat whose husband died due to his involvement in an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life. Before he dies, Marianne pledges to take care of the wives and children of other resisters. Making good on that promise, Marianne retrieves Benita, who is being abused by Russian soldiers in Berlin, and locates Benita’s son, who’s being held in a Nazi children’s home.
The group makes its way to the von Lingenfels’ castle, where Marianne’s children also live. Then quiet Ania and her two shell-shocked boys arrive, ostensibly fleeing the Red Army. But there’s more to her story, and Benita’s, and it will take years for Marianne to fully understand the pasts of the women she’s been charged with protecting.
Shattuck, whose novel The Hazards of Good Breeding was a finalist for the PEN/Winship Award, sheds new light on World War II’s aftermath and the families left behind, and raises poignant questions about blind loyalty: “Could you see a person’s soul in their face? Marianne and Albrecht had often argued about this. Yes, she had insisted. Didn’t you know from the moment you saw Hitler’s photograph that he was bad? Albrecht wasn’t sure. If it was so obvious, he pointed out, how did he fool the rest of Germany?”
The Women in the Castle is haunting, a beautifully written and painfully vivid glimpse into one of the most horrific times in world history.