In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Marianne, the widow of a famous Nazi resistance figure reaches out to find other such widows and help them survive on her estate.
Two passages that really moved me:
Martin believed in God, though. How could he not? It was unbearable to imagine there wasn’t something better out there, a divine balm for all the havoc he had seen here on earth. He believed in God not as an explanation, but as a salve–a wise, stern figure on a throne in the clouds, watching out for those below….But it wasn’t God who caused the war and the all the horror. It was people, he thought…. (p. 138.)
In the future, Martin will recall this [Christmas 1945] night as the first time–and one of the only times–he ever saw Germans crying in public…from spontaneous emotion. For this brief time, they were not hiding from one another, wearing their masks of cold and practical detachment. The music stirred the hardened sediment of their memory, chafed against layers of horror and shame, and offered a rare solace in their shared anger, grief, and guilt…(p. 149).
Years later [he] would try to find the worlds to articulate the power of togetherness in a world where togetherness had been corrupted–and to explore the effect of the music, the surprising lengths the people had gone to hear it and to play it, as evidence that music, and art in general, are basic requirements of the human soul. Not a luxury but a compulsion….The walk home was magical. No one was glum. For this Christmas night they were lifted from the damning particularities of their own lives and invited to be a small piece of eternity (p. 149).
Jessica Shattuck has more than proved she can tell a compelling story. This part she has down. I could feel the damp, smell the rot, hear the stomachs rumbling, smell the wreckage of society. The women were each haunted–today we’d say they have PTSD and then some from all that they endured. But let’s make no mistake, this is not a a Holocaust story of Jews emerging from the Hell of the concentration camps. These are all German women living with the choices they and their husbands made between the rise of Hitler and the end of the war. The end of the war was brutal–especially for women, many of whom endured repeated rapes or lived as near sex-slaves to invading Russian soldiers. The horror of that is almost too real, almost too vividly remembered by the characters even if the acts are not re-told. You can feel the strain of their recent past.
Standing up to a bully doesn’t always make him back down. Those who stood up to Hitler usually paid for it with their lives. Some were “merely” tortured or “merely” imprisoned. The families of the men who plotted to overthrow Hitler suffered for the men’s actions, too. In addition to the three widows there are the children–including Martin [in the passages above] who was sent to a re-education home to be adopted into a good Nazi family. The other children, too, have scars. And all are trying to bond, or in Martin’s case, re-bond, with parents trying to keep going, trying to keep shelter over their children’s heads and food on the table.
Even after an epic tragedy, hope can blossom, love can be reborn. This is the place where Marianne held too tightly to the past. As the other women try to get on with their lives, Marianne’s refusal to let go, to move forward, plays out in all their lives.
There is one gruesome scene in Chapter 10 by which animal lovers will be traumatized. It is typical of the aftermath of the war though. I point it out because it still hurts me after I stumbled across it unknowingly.
While the story is extremely well told, the setting vivid, the characters were not all they could be in terms of seeming “real.” Some of that is attributable to the very real “shutting down” in traumatic situations. The rest was just “cardboard.” Marianne I came to know. Benita and Ania…..not so much.
4 full stars. I will be definitely be reading more of Jessica Shattuck’s books–this was an excellent introduction to her work for me. I want to read more.