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April 2018: The Women In The Castle (Shattuck)

posted May 20, 2018, 8:21 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Our last meeting was at Maggie’s house in Berkeley.  Eleven of us gathered to discuss Jessica Shattuck’s novel The Women in the Castle.  The novel depicts the aftermath of World War II from the point of view of its German survivors.  The central character is Marianne von Lingefels, a woman whose husband was executed after a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  After the collapse of the Nazi regime, Marianne sets out to find the wives and children of her husband’s co-conspirators and to bring them back to the refuge of her husband’s crumbling ancestral estate in Bavaria.   With a good deal of difficulty she finds Martin, the son of co-conspirator who was also her childhood friend, and his mother, Benita. She also discovers Ania, the wife of another resister, and her two boys.  With flashbacks to life before and during the war, the novel does a good job of portraying what the costs of the war to German families and of illustrating the difficult choices that individuals faced in their attempts to survive or to make their deaths significant.  The novel’s focus, however, is on the way the war shaped the emotional, conceptual and moral landscape of the German people as they tried to rebuild their decimated communities.  What new relationships could be built?  Were these new ties enough to provide healing, hope and new beginnings?  What had to be remembered and what harms had to be redressed?  Were there some truths better denied; some secrets better kept?


The members of the book club liked the novel.  We have read a lot of novels about World War II, but little from the point of view of the Germans who made it through the war.  This subject was of particular interest to Maggie and Nancy, both of whom had studied and travelled in Europe while Germany was very much still in this recovery period.  However, the rest of us were also intrigued by the subject and by the questions that the novel raised about how to cope with the traumas of the past.  We enjoyed discussing which characters seemed to be handling the psychological mine field most adeptly.  No one was sympathetic to local villagers who simply denied that the crimes of the Nazis’ had actually occurred.  However, we weren’t sure that Marianne’s devotion to the truth and to the full acceptance of responsibility was always the best method either, especially as it seems to drive other characters to the point of crisis.  


Our discussion about such points flowed quite easily, thanks to the author’s skill at developing her three central, female characters.  It was refreshing to read a book depicting women with such richness and complexity.  The structure of the book was slightly less appealing, however, as the author jumps backwards and forwards in time quite a bit, making it very important for the reader to make note of the location and date listed at the beginning of each chapter.  This wouldn’t have been so bad, except we are also transitioning between the stories of the different characters.  In the author’s defense, however, the confusion that can arise as a result of these stylistic choices echoes (in a very modest way) the psychological disorientation of the characters, who were frequently overwhelmed by memories of their traumatic pasts.  Plus, as someone pointed out, we had had lots of practice at jumping back and forth between locations and characters when we read Liar Temptress Soldier Spy in January, so as a book club we were very much up to the task!