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.