Book review: The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

As the Third Reich crumbles and the Russian Army advances in June, 1945, three women find refuge in a crumbling castle in the Bavarian countryside.

Their husbands were all resistance fighters who were executed or imprisoned for opposing the Nazis, and now the women must come to terms with the choices they made in the dark shadow of war… and decide whether it will ever be possible to live with them.

Award-winning US author Jessica Shattuck has used her own family history as inspiration for a pulsating novel that sheds a startling and powerful new light on the repercussions of war, and what it meant to be a German survivor of one of the most tumultuous periods in history.

Shattuck, whose mother was German, explores the aftermath of six years of brutal conflict and how it feels to survive, love and, ultimately, to forgive in the wake of guilt, regret, sorrow and unimaginable hardship.

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels and her three children return to Burg Lingenfels in Bavaria, the imposing stone fortress castle of her husband Albrecht’s ancestors which has now fallen into ruin following years of war.

Albrecht was a secret resistance fighter and was executed for his part in the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and now Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave co-conspirators back in 1938 to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

First, Marianne rescues six-year-old Martin Fledermann, the son of her dearest childhood friend, from a Nazi re-education home. Together, they make their way across the smouldering wreckage of their homeland to Berlin where Martin’s mother, the beautiful and naïve Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers.

Next she locates Ania Grabarek, wife of a Polish resistance fighter, and her two boys, now refugees languishing in one of the many camps that house the millions displaced by the war.

As Marianne assembles this makeshift family in the surrounds of Burg Lingenfels, she is convinced that their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that the black-and-white, highly principled world of her privileged past has become infinitely more complicated, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart.

Eventually, all three women must come to terms with events of the past and the challenges they present now in a new, frightening and emotionally-charged world…

Shattuck sheds fascinating insight on to an aspect of the Second World War that few have attempted to explore… how the German people coped with the aftermath of war in a world that, at the time, seemed to care little about their plight.

Europe was awash with refugees – as if the continent ‘had shrugged and sent everyone rolling’ – the ‘carousing’ Russian Army was running riot and there was anger and panic at every turn of the road and on every street corner.

Amidst the maelstrom are the three women, each desperate to forget the losses and tragedies of the war years and each eager to rebuild their lives for the sake of their children, but each is also consumed by private guilt and there are dark secrets waiting to be exposed which will reveal hidden connections to the ruthless Nazi regime.

Emotional, though-provoking and packed with history, atmosphere and authenticity, The Women of the Castle is a poignant tale of suffering, shame, friendship and, ultimately, the redemptive power of forgiveness.

(Zaffre, hardback, £12.99)