Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly, was one of the books I selected to read for the Uncorked Reading Challenge way back in January. It was a book I was looking forward to more than the others, since I am a big fan of historical fiction, especially set in the first half of the 20th Century.
The novel follows the stories of three women during and after the Second World War: Caroline Ferriday, a US socialite and charity; Kasia, a Polish teenager; and Herta Obenhauser, a German doctor. The lives of the three converge following the end of the war as a result of horrific atrocities which occurred in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Ravensbruck is a key setting of the novel, and was – in real life – a location where doctors performed experimental surgeries on women known as ‘The Rabbits’. These experiments involved the intentional infection of wounds in the leg, and bone transfers, to prove ‘Sulfonamide’ was not a suitable option for treatment of battle wounds.
Herta is a leading doctor of the experiments, Kasia is one of her many victims, and Caroline eventually discovers the experiments through a chance meeting with a ‘Rabbit’ in Paris. It is Caroline Ferriday who helped expose the story to the world.
I thought aspects of the book were definitely engaging, but others were a total slog. Although this is really a story about Caroline Ferriday, her beginning sections were particularly dull – comparison of the excesses of New York, and Caroline’s inner complaints about the conflicts between herself and other socialites, or her failure at securing her married French boyfriend’s visa seem petty in comparison to the horror that Kasia and her friends experience at the same time. Perhaps that was Kelly’s intention, but I found myself skim reading Caroline’s sections until Part Two of the book.
I’m not usually a fan of changes in POV, but this one did work, as there was such a dramatic contrast in location and experience of the three characters – for the most part, their lives do not cross, even Kasia and Herta who would clearly have interacted in the reality of the book (Kasia is not actually a real person, though Herta is) do not describe the same event like other POV stories often do.
Kasia, by far, is the most likeable character of the book. Even when she takes out her trauma – which we can see would really be a form of PTSD – on her family, we can’t judge her for it. Hall Kelly takes direct inspiration from history to assign some ingenuity to her character too – in the novel, Kasia uses urine as ‘invisible ink’ to send messages to her father. This event did take place, but from a woman named Krystyna Czyż to her brother.
Who would enjoy this book
Those who are interested in the stories of women in history, especially during the Second World War.
Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is a book that crosses purpose. Yes it’s entertaining, engaging, but it’s also informative and educational. Without this novel, I wouldn’t have known about the experiences of The Rabbits, and one more person knowing about the atrocities of concentration camps keeps the lessons alive.
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