Lilac Girls sweeps through the mid-twentieth century international scene with both breadth and depth. Martha Hall Kelly’s novel features three women—a New York socialite, a young Polish resistance movement courier, and a German doctor. For all three, World War II irrevocably changed their lives. Alternating chapters tell their stories. At first, the three lead separate existences. Then, slowly, their narratives converge. Kelly doesn’t use any “coincidence” tricks, however. Rather, she lets each woman blossom, or shrivel, together or alone.
Two of the main characters are based on living legends. Caroline Ferriday actually was a debutante, then a Broadway actress, later a volunteer with the French consulate helping European children orphaned by the war, and finally a tireless advocate for civilian reparations and punishment of military war criminals. Dr. Herta Oberheuser, one of the few German women so trained, took the only position available to her after she finished medical school. She became a Nazi internment camp doctor, looking after and then experimenting on her Ravensbruck prisoners. Later, she would be the only female jailed for war crimes by the Nuremberg tribunals.
The third Lilac Girls voice belongs to Kasia Kuzmerick, an imagined figure whose experiences are a composite of the Polish girls who were interred at Ravensbruck and who suffered from debilitating physical deprivation and medical torment. The author acknowledges that Kasia is based in part on Nina Iwanska, but adds that Kasia’s character includes other Polish prisoners’ experiences as well. Blending imagined women with a real-life woman allows Kelly latitude to explore, as I noted at the outset, World War II’s devastating reach with both breadth and depth. Lilac Girls telescopes in and out, sometimes panoramic in its purview, sometimes microscopic in its attention to details.
For example, Lilac Girls details the minutiae of Caroline at her French consulate desk, Caroline collecting clothing and money for the orphans abroad, and Caroline falling in love with an unavailable Frenchman. But the novel also spirals out from a New York City listening intently to teletype news to a post-war Paris in disarray and then back to New York coteries. Kasia’s life is more intimately presented, especially the horrors of the Ravensbruck experiments. But her later years reflect the realities and deprivations of a Poland occupied by Russia. Even Herta is depicted, not with sympathy, but at least with intimacy. Kelly shows formative moments of cruelty that are the psychological stepping stones leading to Herta’s later monstrous behavior. All this, while Hitler invades nation after nation after nation.
Lilac Girls is not an easy book to read. It is sometimes unbearable (I found myself cringing at the horrors more than I usually do when reading World War I or World War II fiction, perhaps because this novel’s brutality is happening to women and I felt a special kinship with their plights). Nonetheless, the Lilac Girls story is one I highly recommend. I read it in two days; it’s that compelling. Kelly writes well, her characters are intriguingly complex, and her interwoven plots come together in meaningful ways. Most importantly, she suggests international themes the reader might well take to heart—blind-sighted nationalism, the dehumanizing of others, the chilling aftereffects of war. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Martha Hall Kelly: Lost Roses
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