Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Review: LILAC GIRLS by Martha Hall Kelly

Rating: 4/5 stars

Lilac Girls is a mostly true account following three women during World War Two.
—Caroline, 37, American, volunteer at the French Consulate in New York City
—Kasia, 17, Polish, prisoner at Ravensbrück concentration camp
—Herta, early 20s, German, doctor at Ravensbrück concentration camp
I feel like this book mostly tells Kasia’s story, but it features perspectives from Caroline and Herta, two people who had profound impacts on Kasia’s life. The stories of these three women intersect to create something heartbreaking but also beautiful. Before reading this book, I didn’t know anything about Ravensbrück, the all-female concentration camp, but now I’ve been provided with an intimate view of what life was like inside.

Something I liked about this book was that the chapters alternated points of view, and each chapter ended in such a way that I had to know what happened next, but the next chapter was usually from a different character’s perspective. Written this way, the narrative propelled the reader through the story and really created an engaging plotline throughout.

I love historical fiction, and it’s been awhile since I’ve read a WWII story, but this one reminded me how brutal that time was. This book is gritty at times and takes the reader right to the heart of the concentration camp life at Ravensbrück and the medical experiments performed there. Many times it was hard to read, but I also couldn’t stop reading because I was so engrossed in it. I cannot express enough how grateful I am to not have lived through that. I know I wouldn’t have survived, and I feel sick just reading about it.

For the first eighty pages or so, I really struggled to keep the characters and the story straight. There are a lot of side characters. There are also a lot of words in German or Polish with no English alternative or definition provided, so I often became confused during those sentences about what had transpired. For example, matka means mother in Polish, but for about half the book, I thought it was Kasia’s mother’s actual name (it was capitalized in the book). These few reasons are why I am giving this book four stars instead of five. I think it is very deserving of five stars, but my rating is based on personal enjoyment, and my struggle in the beginning leads me to give this four stars.

I cannot believe this is Martha Hall Kelly’s first book. The writing was amazing and captivating, the editing extremely thorough. (Being an editor myself, I usually find at least one error or plot hole in every book, but I cannot remember any from this book.) I know she did about ten years of research for this story, which is an astonishing feat unto itself. I can only hope that one day I’ll be as devoted to a topic as she was to telling these women’s stories. Here is a wonderful short video of Kelly talking about how she became interested in the story she tells in Lilac Girls, and it showcases some places that inspired her and pictures of the real people featured in the book.

Everyone needs to read books like this one at some point in their lives: actual accounts of the horrors of war (this book is technically fiction, but it is based on true events and features many real people as its characters). Every time I read a story about the war, specifically what it was like to be a prisoner in a concentration camp, I shiver with utter horror at the thought that humans could treat other humans that way. Absolutely unfathomable to me. I am beyond grateful that I did not have to endure the torture and experimentation that the girls in this book did. It’s very difficult to read about but also very eye-opening how blessed we are today, and it really makes me appreciate the life I have. Even on my hardest days, I would prefer to live them a hundred times over than live one day as a prisoner during the war. The women in this story really suffered through a lot but probably grew exponentially more than I ever will because of those experiences. I highly recommend Lilac Girls, in part because of the imprint it will leave on you when you finish.

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