The Women in the Castle
I’ve been on a bit of a World War II kick lately, so Jessica Shattuck’s latest novel, The Women in the Castle, seemed like something that would be right up my alley. I relished the idea of seeing how a group of women and children rebuilt their lives and created a cohesive family unit after the struggles and deprivations of the Second World War. Although the novel more or less lived up to my expectations there are a couple of things that kept it from being given DIK status.
Marianne von Lingenfels is a widow of the resistance, her husband having been responsible for a failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler that cost him his life. She and her children are left alone, but Marianne isn’t one to wallow in her despair. Instead, she’s determined to keep the promise she made to her husband before his death – she’ll be there to care for the widows and fatherless children of his co-conspirators. And what better place to bring everyone together than the crumbling Bavarian castle that once hosted the biggest names in German society? Her in-laws have died, and the castle has been left to Marianne. Surely a place that holds such happy memories for her can serve as a place of healing for those who need it most?
So Marianne sets out in search of families torn apart by war. First, she rescues six-year-old Martin from an orphanage. Martin’s father was one of Marianne’s closest childhood friends. The two had a bit of a falling out shortly before the war began, but Marianne is determined to care for his wife and son, perhaps in a slightly misguided attempt to make amends. The reason for the conflict isn’t initially clear to the reader, but we do learn more about it as the story progresses.
Martin’s mother, Benita, has been living in Berlin for the past few years and has recently fallen into the hands of the occupying Red Army, many of whom have forced themselves on her. She supposes she should be grateful to the grand lady who sweeps in to rescue her, but Benita is not one to trust too easily. She remembers Marianne as a haughty, over-privileged woman who thought entirely too much of herself and is thus a very unlikely rescuer indeed. Still, Benita wants nothing more than to be reunited with the son who was so cruelly taken from her, and Marianne is offering her a way to do that. Plus, she remembers how highly her husband thought of Marianne, and decides the other woman can’t be all bad.
Shortly after Marianne, Benita and their children are settled in the Von Lingenfels’ ancestral home, they are joined by Ania, another resistor’s widow, and her two boys who had been languishing in one of the many camps created to house those displaced by the war. Ania is a little bit on the gruff side, and it’s obvious from the start that she doesn’t quite know what to do with Marianne’s generosity. However, she knows life in the Bavarian countryside is far preferable to life spent in a filthy camp, so she somewhat reluctantly agrees to stay on at the castle.
The story is told from alternating points of view, allowing the reader to get to know the primary characters quite intimately. I must admit to liking Marianne’s chapters the least, simply because of her overly righteous way of looking at the world. She is definitely aware of her own good fortune, but she often seems to view it as her due. She’s constantly berating Benita for being too naïve without stopping to consider what Benita went through during the war. Marianne thinks she knows best, and everyone else is just supposed to fall in line. I wanted someone to put her in her place.
This is a story of family, both of blood and of choice and Ms. Shattuck skilfully writes of the everyday trials faced by a group of people who have been brought together by tragedy. Slowly, they become a family unit, but it’s not an easy road. There are betrayals both large and small, and – eventually – each of the three women is forced to examine who she really is and what she wants out of life. I loved the author’s ability to make each of the women real with her own strengths and weaknesses. Fully fleshed out characters, even if they aren’t always likeable, are a hallmark of great writing.
The novel spans almost fifty years, and I sometimes felt Ms. Shattuck was struggling to include too much detail. The pace is pretty slow in places, and, while I didn’t actually skim through parts of it, I must admit to being tempted a time or two. Plus, huge chunks of time are skipped, and then the author would have to catch the reader up, a process that felt somewhat overwhelming. Even so, I found myself a little bit sad to reach the last page. The Women in the Castle is an engaging story despite its faults, and I encourage fans of World War II fiction to check it out.