Review: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
Go with care, potential spoilers abound.
I'll be honest: when I first saw the cover for The Women in the Castle, I thought it was a fictional tale, perhaps set in medieval times or in a fantastical land, where a queen or princess was being held against her will. How far off was I?
The female protagonists are anything but helpless.
The novel by Jessica Shattuck opens to a grand party set in 1938 Germany, the country on the cusp of a new and dangerous time. A young, modest mother, Marianne von Lingenfels, is working diligently keep her aunt-in-law, the Countess', guests happy. From the start, Marianne is described as a no-nonsense, pragmatic woman who believes little in frivolities and even less in the future of her country. Quickly, it becomes apparent that the glorious rebirth of Germany through the "guidance" of a youthful Adolf Hitler, is going to be anything but good.
Marianne finds herself swearing an oath to protect the wives and children of her husband's resistance group should the worst occur. After a brief, heartbreaking, and incredibly foreboding moment between herself and her closest childhood friend, Martin Constantine "Connie" Fledermann, you can only assume the worst is about to happen.
What at first I found to be confusing later allows for a beautifully in-depth look into the backgrounds and history of the characters. The points-of-view often flip-flop around; perhaps it's 1950, maybe it's 1938. And who knows what country you might be in. But what is lovely about how Shattuck writes her characters' narratives is that you slowly are able to learn what they think of themselves and what others think of them.
The main protagonist, though technically there is most definitely three of them, would be Marianne von Lingenfels. She is our first guide through the life of pre-Nazi Germany, or should I say, a time when Nazi party had the glimmering, glittery appearance of being able to launch Germany into the forefront of the world stage. Marianne is undoubtedly wary of everything this new Germany stands for and her husband, the stoic, intelligent Albrect, fights to try and ensure that all that they fear never comes to pass. Theirs is the familiar narrative of the resistor. It is with him that Marianne has one son, Fritz, and two daughters, Elisabeth and Katarina. There is the usual family dynamic with Fritz being a rambunctious boy and his sisters polar opposites of one another.
She is quickly joined by Benita Fledermann, the young, naive, but not unintelligent wife of her closet friend, Connie Fledermann. Benita comes from a small, humble village far away from the cultured center of Berlin. Her sweet, innocent look at the Nazi party allows for the readers to have a secondary point-of-view. She sees things in a way that most dreamers do: escaping from the most horrid things by allowing her mind to wonder through different moments in time. Her son, Martin Fledermann, soon becomes another singular point in the plot, showing us what will be long after the war is done.
Rounding out the trio is the hardworking, sensible, Ania Grabarek, whose backstory is so much deeper than anyone could've thought. A young woman once raised to embody all of German'y standards, Ania lends her point-of-view as one of unfaltering patriotism and loyalty. As years continue on, it becomes increasingly obvious to Ania that everything she initially fought for may have been misconstrued; the great future promised to her may be built on the backs of lies, deceit, and evil. She continues to raise her boys, Wolfang and Anselm, trying her best to keep running.
There are so many lovely prose in this novel that really catch you unawares. I found myself reading paragraphs, allowing the words to settle in, and then going back to re-read them. It is actually one of the first books this year that I have pulled out mini sticky notes to highlight areas I found utterly wonderful. Below is a handful of quotes that seemed to stick with me the most.
The Final Verdict
What started as a slower read for me quickly turned into a story I couldn't tear myself away from. I'm writing this review a bit later than I wanted to so some of my initial emotions may have become subdued, but I will continue to remember the surges of pain and hope and love that coursed through these pages for years to come. There were moments in this novel when I was sure of the ending, but somehow, Shattuck kept my guessing from chapter to chapter. The characters are deep and come with boatloads of baggage. I found myself talking to, arguing with, and rooting for different women along the way. What I love most about this novel is that each woman's experience—her narrative—is never belittled to allow another's to shine. These women disagree with one another, find fault in one another, but never leave each other's sides.
It's always fascinating to see another side of a story and oftentimes, war stories, especially those set in WWI or WWII, are often based on the narratives of an army or civilians aiding in military needs. Whether they are soldiers, nurses, or home gardeners who grow for the country, most historical fiction is centered around the war itself. The Women in the Castle showed a side often glazed over: the afterward. Yes, with the changing of scenes and eras we do see a bit of each woman's life before wartime, but a solid 80% is how they cope afterwards; how their lives are changed for better or worse, oftentimes a mix of the two.
Marianne, Benita, and Ania have so much in common with one another in their shared experiences, but differ so greatly in their personalities. The connections I made while reading about them where translatable to present day events. Women who must rise beyond what society thinks of them to become great fierce and protective creatures. There is a scene that sticks strongly in the novel: Marianne and Ania must sit guard in the crumbling castle while Benita and the children sleep on another floor. What they guard against are rowdy, drunk, violent soldiers who could kill them at a moment's notice. There is nothing between them save for a wooden door. The soldiers take everything from the women including the an aging horse which they consume later. It's a strong power move to show that they have "the right" to anything and everything of the women. Their weapons and masculinity have given them the ability to demand and take anything they wish. The idea of being so at the mercy of these men knowing there is little you can do other than fight for your very lives, and to be able to keep yourselves calm and metered all the while, is something so powerful.
To realize that these stories are actually the memories of people who walk this earth is absolutely incredible. At 26, I would be almost Benita's age. I don't know if I would have the strength within me to withstand this type of horror. On the other hand, maybe we don't know what we're capable until we're put in situations like this. Perhaps that's the great female spirit, the mother in all of us, who would do anything to protect those we love.
Every time I read a historical fiction based in WWII, I can’t begin to fathom the realness of it. It always seems like something you learn in history, and then a book comes a long to remind you that people were alive; these people lived and breathed and loved and died and this was their present, their history to reflect on. I feel a mixture of melancholy and nostalgia for something I never experienced firsthand. I weep for these women, these people, I laugh at their joys and find hope in their happiness. I feel heartache for their mistakes and despair. Jessica Shattuck has beautifully crafted The Women in the Castle to shine a light on an incredibly small group of individuals and allowed us to see into the lives of people who may not have felt they had a “large” part in the war, but were making decisions that would have immense outcomes. We hear about prominent figures in war times, but it’s rare to be so enthralled and consumed by “ordinary” people.
It was an immense pleasure to see how three brave, unfamiliar, widows and mothers existed and fought for normalcy for themselves and their children in a time when even saying the wrong word could have you executed. (There’s a whole other argument for the parallels between now and modern times, but that will be a further discussion at another time.) This has been a pleasure to read and a book I will need to permanently add to my shelves to revisit again and again.