THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE, by Jessica Shattuck. William Morrow, 356 pp., $26.99.
Late in Jessica Shattuck’s “The Women in the Castle,” the daughter of a German soldier — a man who’d once loaded Jews into Treblinka-bound trucks — walks the Bavarian castle grounds where much of this novel unfolds. It’s 1991, but her thoughts travel back a half-century. “As a German,” she thinks, one “knows that if you start poking through a shoe box of photographs, you’ll find Nazi uniforms and swastikas and children with their arms raised in ‘Heil Hitler’ salutes.”
While much of Shattuck’s well-researched novel takes place in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the three surviving women at its center are haunted by the dozen years of the Thousand-Year Reich — “a great unknowable continent of experience,” as Shattuck calls it. Marianne, the wealthy daughter of Prussian aristocrats who inherits the castle, is married to a man hanged for his role in the 1944 plot to kill Hitler. Principled as a child — her friends nicknamed her “The Judge” — she remains so as an adult, castigating those Germans who after the war refuse to own up to what they’d done.
But in a book where Shattuck manages to be both morally tough-minded and remarkably empathetic toward all of her characters, even this sometimes strident voice of conscience exhibits blind spots. Shattuck lets us see what Marianne too readily forgets: Her moral qualms are not just a mark of her often admirable and heroic character, but also a luxury made possible by wealth and status. As we’ll see, she’s a direct beneficiary of the war, in ways that align her with every limousine liberal who decries while still enjoying privilege.
The two poorer women and their children joining Marianne in her castle in the summer of 1945 confront tougher choices. Benita, the less complicated of the two, is a Bavarian peasant whose beauty had led to marriage with the man she initially thinks of as her “prince”: another of the conspirators whose plot to assassinate Hitler costs him his life. Marianne treats her like a child; in some ways she is one. But she also endures suffering of a sort Marianne cannot begin to fathom. Marianne plucks the more inscrutable and reflective Ania and her sons from a displaced person’s camp; the two will become best friends until, suddenly, they’re not — sundered by lies Ania has told in order to survive.
Shattuck, who says the novel was inspired by her own family history, is best in the second half of her book, as she turns her gaze on those immediate postwar years when lying in Germany was both survival tactic and way of life. Whether fishing along a river bank where concentration camp victims were once shot, or making a living as a wedding photographer after serving as photo editor for the Nazi newspaper, the Germans of the late 1940s and early 1950s are portrayed as a people denying who they’d been.
Even as “Castle” chronicles the guilt, shame and denial, Shattuck also credibly traces how the descent into madness could have happened, hardening good people one fatal misstep at a time: “She knew of the horrors and she didn’t,” we’re told of one woman, sketched through close third-person narration, shifting among and giving voice to multiple characters. Shattuck’s effective, crosscutting temporal shifts — from Kristallnacht in 1938 to the end of the war in 1945, forward to 1950 and then back to the 1920s and 1930s — underscores the ongoing, nightmarish yesterday that Germany continued to live, long after the war ended. As one character ruefully learns, one ultimately cannot narrate “away evil while staring it in the face.”