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“Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Pages
Sep 1st, 2023
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review by MEREDITH MCKINNIE

“I guess somewhere in a corner of our hearts, we are always twenty.”

Kelly’s sweeping historical fiction novel chronicles the Rabbits – the women confined in the Ravensbruck concentration camp who were subjected to experimental surgical procedures that left survivors severely crippled. The story is told in three parts, from unique perspectives of World War II that inevitably converge belatedly in the novel. Caroline, a New York City socialite and volunteer for the French Consulate in Manhattan, fears for her beloved French citizens in Hitler’s path. Her stake in the conflict sharpens when she falls for a French actor who returns to France prior to the invasion. Kasia, a Polish teenager caught in a love triangle, watches as Hitler invades her city, captures her neighbors, and uproots her family. Embracing a rebellious spirit, Kasia joins the Underground, intent on averting the Nazi invasion at any cost. Herta, a German doctor fresh out of medical school, confronts an environment reticent to let women practice medicine and unknowingly takes a job at Ravensbruck, becoming the surgical lead on the experiments on the Rabbits.

The characters of Caroline and Herta are based on real women’s accounts, though Kelly takes liberties with dialogue. Kelly’s research for this novel is impressive, broad in scope and rich in detail. In the addendum, Kelly admits initially falling for Caroline’s story, the heroine for the Rabbits, though far-removed from the Nazi conflict abroad. The novel’s heavy emphasis on Caroline submerses the gritty interactions within Ravensbruck. The fictional character of Kasia is most developed, strengthened by intense familial relations and struggles with grief. The Nazi doctor Herta is the most ignored in the novel, though the most compelling – as a reader, I was left wanting more of her story. 

The idea for this novel lured me in. I realize historical fiction is often confined by reality, though the trouble stemmed from the story’s construction. Hall writes gripping page turners, a thrill ride through a well-documented period of history. The reading experience mirrors Caroline’s reaction to the world events, anxious anticipation from a comfortable distance. The highs of the novel are found in the relationships – Caroline’s love affair and Kasia’s devotion to her mother Makta and sister Zuzanna. Rich in female support and love, Kelly channels the necessary reliance on loved ones and close connections for survival. Though the three stories do eventually merge, the culmination happens so late in the novel that the story feels somewhat over. I would recommend this book for anyone who delves into historical fiction, particularly the Holocaust genre. The story is compelling, even if the construction could be improved.

“Somehow the Germans lose every war but win every peace.”