Published: 5 April 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction
New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.
An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbours, one false move can have dire consequences.
For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.
The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.
I have to admit to having being disappointed in this book, mainly because it failed to live up to its promise. I had expected the focus of the story to be on Caroline and her attempts to help the Ravensbrück women but the majority of the book was about something else entirely and Caroline doesn’t even meet any of the victims until more than three-quarters of the book is over. As far as Caroline is concerned, her chapters are mostly about her fundraising galas and then she spends the war pining for her lost love – a French actor who is already married. Even after the war, Caroline is more concerned with finding Paul than she is about anything else and she wallows in her own self pity when she has to give him up. The romance element is boring as hell and far too much time is spent on it considering it is not meant to be the focal point of the novel.
Caroline’s narration does nothing to endear her to the reader because she seems entirely too focused on her wardrobe and name dropping. When her path finally crosses with the Ravensbrück women, the story inexplicably jumps ahead ten years so we don’t really get to witness something that is supposed to have made such an impact on Caroline. In the afterword, the author tells us Caroline was also a great advocate for tracking down Nazi war criminals but again this is fluffed over which is a real shame. I feel as if the author paid too much attention to the more trivial aspects of Caroline’s life and not enough on her strengths which does her character a great disservice especially since she is a real person.
Our second narrator, Kasia, is a young Polish girl who gets involved with the underground but pays a heavy price when she is arrested along with her sister, Zuzanna. While Kasia and Zuzanna are fictional characters, they are based on an amalgamation of different women who survived the concentration camp experiments. Ravensbrück was a German concentration camp exclusively for women which was operated from 1939 to 1945 and the largest ethnic group was by far the Polish with over 40,000 women having passed through the gates. The medical experiments were designed to replicate the types of wounds experienced by German soldiers at the front and to test the efficacy of certain drugs. The women were given deep wounds in their legs which were deliberately infected with bacteria and foreign substances, like wood and glass, while the doctors studied the effects. The victims, known as Rabbits, often died from these infections or were maimed for life.
The author’s descriptions of life at the concentration camp and the subsequent experiments were indeed harrowing, however the constant time jumps completely spoiled the narrative for me. The experiments and the consequences for the women who survived are far more important than other aspects for me and should have been exploited more. Kasia and Zuzanna are fortunate to survive the ordeal but their health is compromised to the extent Kasia has permanent pain in her withered leg and Zusanna discovers she was sterilised. As you would expect, Kasia’s personality changes as a result of the trauma but I’m afraid I started to dislike her immensely as she behaved really nastily towards her daughter and her sister.
The third narrator is the one who puzzles me the most because I can’t understand why the author chose to give the Nazi doctor a voice just because she was a woman. Herta Oberheuser, a real life doctor, is a thoroughly unpleasant character from start to finish who believes in the superiority of the German race and isn’t one bit sorry for what she has done. Before Herta arrives at Ravensbrück, we are told certain medical jobs will be forever out of her reach due to her gender so Herta joins the Nazi party and eventually lands the job at Ravensbrück. Are we supposed to feel bad for Herta because her career is being blocked by her male counterparts? The book tries to suggest Herta isn’t thrilled with her new job but she makes the most of a bad situation as some sort of career is better than none. However, what the book fails to make clear is Oberheuser was the one who decided which women were suitable for experimentation and when the first round of tests failed to yield the desired results, she began experimenting with bone and muscle transplants in the hopes spare limbs could be provided to wounded German soldiers.
While revealing the stress of the experiments has been causing her to self-harm and the authorities are worried about her mental state, Herta then goes on to recommend the subjects of her experiments be killed by lethal injection or placed in the gas chamber so evidence of her work is destroyed. Are we supposed to sympathise with her? Are we supposed to see her as a woman trapped in a situation over which she has no control? It’s hard to do that since she has been given plenty of opportunities to move to another job and is so anxious to hide what she has been doing. The real Herta was the only female defendant at the Nuremberg trials where she was sentenced to twenty years in prison, however she was released after only five years and began practicing as a family doctor. A few years later, Herta was exposed by a Ravensbrück victim and her medical license was revoked. Incredibly, Herta regained her medical licence in 1961 and worked in a laboratory.
In the book, Herta is not featured again until she reappears as a family doctor and Kasia’s subsequent exposure seems to be the release the Polish woman needs to get on with her life. Herta’s narration is dropped after her initial arrest, presumably as the author did not want to cover the Nuremberg trials or Herta’s subsequent career.
Lilac Girls should have been a great book but it was let down by a real lack of focus.