HarperCollins | 2019 (14 November) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1943 and Rosa has fled Berlin, a city of bomb raids that reminds her of loss, to live with her parents-in-law in East Prussia. Her husband Gregor is fighting on the Russian front and her parents are dead. But Rosa finds no peace in this remote and rural part of Germany. Hitler’s hidden headquarters, the Wolfsshanze or Wolf’s Lair, is nearby and Hitler spends more and more time there, increasingly paranoid as the war begins to go badly. Ten German women are picked to serve as his food tasters, to protect Hitler from poison. Rosa is selected and there’s nothing she can do about it. Three times a day she plays a Russian roulette, eating Hitler’s food and then then forced to wait for an hour each time to ensure that she isn’t about to die. The women are virtually imprisoned, only allowed home in the evening. They’re not treated well. And so a type of solidarity slowly grows between these women. But each is so different from another. They think about everything, including the war, differently. It isn’t long before Rosa finds much more to test her than her daily fear of being poisoned to death.
The Women at Hitler’s Table (translated by Leah Janeczko) is a fascinating novel that examines the influence of Hitler on not just these women, but on all of Germany. This is increasingly a war he cannot win but he will not give in. The Wolf’s Lair feels like a den of paranoid madness, its grounds protected by wire as well as guards who are as temperamental as their master. These women live in a state of fear and it’s not just from the food. We also see the wider state of Germany as Rosa remembers her life in Berlin, her marriage. She now faces uncertainty about the fate of her husband. Hitler is a man who has sent his men to fight in the frozen East while he hides in his lair. Rosa suffers but there is another side to this book as it explores her relationship with the officer in charge of them.
Rosa’s an interesting character who is clearly at her wit’s end while trying to hold everything together and stay alive. She is difficult to warm to and the prose, which feels dispassionate, increases our distance. The sexual tension, which plays such a part of the novel, seems strange. But it’s difficult to judge anybody in this novel when they were living in such unnatural times. The line between love and murder, life and death could hardly be less thin. This does make for uncomfortable reading at times but I nevertheless found it mesmerising. It’s hard to look away.
The novel is filled with ideas and difficult questions as these women have to decide how far they will go to survive. Their feelings towards Hitler are ambivalent. They’re afraid of him but they’re working to keep him alive. As the novel goes on, Rosa has to make some choices that will stay with her for the rest of her life. She made these choices but how far was it due to Nazi pressure? And through it all, Rosa develops a relationship with food that is far from normal. At this stage of the war, many people are starving but Rosa and the others are full on Hitler’s food. But every mouth could kill. I found this such an interesting theme and it continues through the novel.
The historical setting is very well done as is the location. It feels cold, remote, hostile. There is a mood of paranoia that hangs over everyone, it even haunts Rosa’s dreams, and there is an atmosphere of distrust, the ever-present possibility of imminent potential death. Rosa and the other women don’t have normal relationships with one another. It would be impossible. Watching Rosa try to pick her way through each day, from meal to meal, is compelling. Despite the troubling subject matter, The Women at Hitler’s Table is a novel that lingers on the mind.