Author: Martha Hall Kelly
Genre: historical fiction
Pages: 496 pages
Source: publishers via NetGalley
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 neighbors, 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.
In Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly has crafted a remarkable novel of unsung women and their quest for love, freedom, and second chances. It is a story that will keep readers bonded with the characters, searching for the truth, until the final pages.
With two of the main characters based in fact and one a made up fiction of the author's, Lilac Girls weaves the harsh, often hard-to-read story of three womens' lives caught up in the obscene horror of WWII. The subject matter is unforgiving and painful; this book can be hard to read and it is quite long. It can be a draining experience to read, but it is also a meaningful one. The disparate narrators come from both sides of the central conflict, and while two voices engender sympathy, empathy, and grief, the other POV creates a slow but deep and lasting horror.
A lot of the atrocities visited by the Nazis on their victims are known in the abstract. Using Ravensbrück as a focal point, Kelly brings that knowledge to life. When I said it can be hard to read Lilac Girls, I honestly meant it. There are sections in this novel that depict the worst of humankind; torture, medical experimentation, abuse across the spectrum abound and happen to characters. It's far from an easy read but Kasia's spirit and Caroline's empathy are the bright spots in the darkness of the plot and the surroundings.
The well-chosen moments of friendship, and of love, really stand out amongst the rest of narrative's aspects and themes. Be it between mothers and daughters, or friends, or family, those human connections are the perfect juxtaposition to the inhumanity of the doctors and the Nazis. The sisterhood between the Rabbits is heartbreaking to read, but also shows their indomitable will to endure and help one another. They all might not have lived, but each Rabbit was a survivor from the start.
I thought the story was a little long by the time it had ended. Lilac Girls is near 500 pages and it can be hard to continue at times, feeling drawn out. I took quite a bit longer to invest in the characters themselves (not Herta, obviously) instead of just the history that they represented, but I did eventually care quite a bit about Caroline's life and Kasia's fate. This was a solidly drawn and well-realized historical fiction novel, and I think it would be a good read for fans of stories along the lines of Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.