Marianne is the widow of a man who helped to plot Hitler’s death. The plot, rather famously, failed, and Albrecht and his co-conspirators were executed horribly, their families were torn apart, wives imprisoned, and children snatched away. But Marianne is tough and stubborn. She resisted Hitler before and during the war, and after it, she is determined to find the remaining families of those conspirators, and offer them what aid and sanctuary she can.
She finds three widows and their children, and brings them all together in the castle that belonged to her family. Together they navigate the post-war years in spite of being essentially very different sorts of people. And its those differences which informs much of the conflict of the novel.
I haven’t often come across books which tell the story of post-war Germany from the viewpoint of ordinary Germans. Pre-war, wartime, post-war non-fiction discussing the fate of the men who drove the Nazi agenda, yes. But just people scraping by, trying to cope with the guilt or anger of having been part of one of the most horrific events the world has ever seen? Not so much. And that makes these stories that much more compelling, because along with the secrets, the personal tragedies, and the conflicts that ultimately arise between people, there is an additional layer of conflict. Participation guilt, survivor guilt, wholly understandable rage at having been forced into a situation in which everything you value was stolen from you. It’s harrowing.
It’s also a thoughtful, sensitive study of how different people approach moral quandaries. Marianne is a black-and-white thinker with a clear moral compass. Her confusion when that compass points her in the wrong direction is painful. Benita has simple desires, yet somehow she is never able to have the few things she feels would make her happy. Ania does what she can to protect her children from a secret life that might devastate them. Their friendship is ultimately a recipe for disaster. That there aren’t more victims is a tribute to the ability of people to learn and change.
Shattuck’s writing is strong and direct. She doesn’t flinch from talking about painful things, or prettify evil. She does allow us, though, to view her characters with empathy and to understand why they have done the things they’ve done. She lets us watch them grow and come to understand their existences in a deeper way. That’s the best any of us can hope for, I suspect, so Shattuck’s novel can give us hope as well as a remarkable story.