This is a glorious novel first and foremost. Every page is filled with writing so evocative that it leaves the reader stunned and in brilliance. This story covers a large scale of time, from 1923 to 1991, but all the pieces are gathered around the Second World War and Germany’s place in history.
When it begins it is November 1939 and Marianne von Lingenfels is the niece-in-law of the French born, German by marriage Countess who owned Burg Lingenfels, the castle of the title and is married to Albrecht, the
…man who contemplated grand abstractions… while shaving. It rendered him oblivious to everyday things.
She is thirty one, mother of three children and is in tacit agreement with her husband’s stand against the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, although his dissent is kept private carefully among the many Germans who are ardent Nazi’s.
Germany was being run by a loudmouthed rabble-rouser, bent on baiting other nations to war and making life miserable for countless innocent citizens.
For so long Marianne and Albrecht and many of their friends had known Hitler was a lunatic, a leader whose lowbrow appeal to people’s most selfish, self-pitying emotions and ignorance was an embarrassment for their country.
Her best friend is Martin Constantine (Connie) Fledermann, a charming man whom no one, not even crazy Hermann Goring is immune to Connie’s charisma. Somehow, without meaning to, a group of likeminded men come together during a grand party at the castle and agree that Hitler must be stopped before he turns Germany into a country of shame amongst the nations. Marianne is accidently drawn into the group and is deemed the commander of wives and children as the men argue over how they should rid Germany of Hitler. At first Marianne is insulted by the title, seeing it as a putdown for being a woman. Her understanding of its implications only occur to her in the coming years.
Marianne is disciplined and has a strong moral compass. It is these characteristics that are the power behind her every move over time. From just before the war was declared, we are then carried to the end of the war, when Germany is in shambles and people are displaced all around Europe. As the commander of wives and children, she takes it upon herself to search for and rescue as many of the families who were punished for their husbands’ part in the assassination attempt of Hitler on July 20th, 1944.
In July 1945 Marianne finds Benita, the wife of her dearest friend Connie, who was being held as sexual hostage by Russian soldiers and her seven year old son Martin, who had been placed in a Nazi run Children’s Home for children of traitors. In August of 1945 Marianne found Ania Brabarek, wife of a man who had brought information regarding what would be known as Kristallnacht to the dissidents, and her two sons Anselm and Wolfgang in a displaced persons camp. From this mismatched group she created through sheer will a family of sorts who lived in the castle, surviving together for several years.
The story then takes us into the near future and looks at the women and the lives they created in the 1950’s, when life was better for Germans, but the past still clung to them heavily every day.
“I know who you are,” he hissed in her ear. “The traitors wife.” She could feel is penis hard against her leg through his pants. “I know your secret.”… You ladies of the castle think you’re better than everyone else,” he said with a dry laugh. “But I can smell a cunt lover a mile off.”
So there were to be new chapters. This was the happy feeling that filled Marianne after Ania’s wedding. To see her friend married to a good man, a good German man (almost an extinct species!) this was a hopeful thing.
Ania and Benita had moved forward in a fashion, although they were still viewed with suspicion for being ‘traitors’ wives, but Marianne clung to her past as a resistor with a righteous indignation. She felt that even though it was in the past, she had to hold people accountable for the sins they had committed during the war. Further still into the story we travel to 1991, when all of Marianne, Ania and Benita’s children are grown and as adults they now must deal with the aftermath of the war and what their parents had or hadn’t done during it.
There is beauty that drifts off each page, nothing is left to a bare essentials retelling. Shattuck creates splendour even in the face of horror. The story is strong and you feel real sympathy and sometimes irritation with the characters. It never feels as if the novel is trying to make excuses for the Nazi era and it doesn’t paint all Germans in a righteous manner of being objectors one and all that so many other novels often fall prey to, such as in Wait For Me, by Caroline Leech, which has a feeling of un-realness about it. For the harsh truth is if so many people in Germany didn’t agree with the war, Hitler’s plan would never had taken a hold as they did. People in Germany did turn a blind eye to the misery they were inflicting upon so many innocent people around Europe and they didn’t care, they believed in and wanted what Hitler was selling. Instead this book it paints the women of the castle as partners whose husbands had played a heroic but tragic part of the war’s history. This book will take concentration and commitment to read, and it is glorious.
I cant wait to see what Jessica Shattuck comes out with next.