In The Dutch Wife, Ellen Keith tells the story of Marijke de Graaf, a Dutch political prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp in 1943, who volunteers to work at the camp brothel in exchange for a reduced sentence. While working at the brothel, she catches the eye of Karl Muller, the second-in-command Nazi officer at the camp. Karl is struggling to balance his distaste for the brutality of his job with his desire to make his father proud, and sees in Marijke a welcome respite from the pressures of his life. Alternating with Marijke and Karl’s stories is that of Luciano Wagner, a political prisoner in 1977 Buenos Aires during the Argentine Dirty War, who is trying to work through a fraught relationship with his domineering father.
The Dutch Wife is beautifully written, and distressingly bleak. Marijke’s story is certainly a perspective I haven’t seen in fiction before — I had no idea prisoners at Nazi camps had brothels — and Keith does a great job at detailing all the various ways in which the Nazis used it more to reinforce their power rather than actually give prisoners moments of pleasure. In a heartbreaking scene, Marijke’s first client can’t perform, because of how much his experiences at the camp weigh down on him. I don’t know if I’d describe him as broken exactly, but Keith paints a very stark picture of how diminished he is when he comes to Marijke, and how sexual pleasure isn’t even among his concerns anymore. In another, more horrifying scene, the Nazis send a gay man to Marijke’s bed, and watch closely to make sure he performs. His desperation when attempting to fake sexual attraction so as to avoid punishment are heartbreaking, and it was such a difficult scene to read.
Karl and Marijke’s encounters were even more difficult to read. Karl believed he was in love with Marijke, and schemed about ways in which he could get rid of Marijke’s husband, who was assigned to a neighbouring camp. The things he ended up doing were horrific, and a scene where he learns that the husband (a mild-mannered professor type) has been given special dispensation to visit a prison library, and then tracks him down to yell at him just infuriated me. His treatment of Marijke as well is so creepy-crawly given the power imbalance, and it was heartbreaking to see Marijke exhibiting symptoms of Stockholm syndrome and thinking that Karl isn’t that bad. This storyline is outright disturbing, and kudos to Keith for such a stark portrayal of what must have been a reality for some women in those camps.
Luciano’s story is tied to the 1943 storyline in a way that makes the story feel like it comes full circle. His storyline does tease us with a bit of hope, as he and some of his fellow prisoners use their jobs at the prison to try to help the resistance and the families affected by the war. I have so many conflicting emotions about how Luciano’s story turns out, but ultimately, I do feel that the ending it realistic, and fits in with the story Keith has built up so far.
The Dutch Wife is beautifully written and engrossing, but by no means an easy read. I’d recommend reading it, then treating yourself to a bit of self-care afterwards.
Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for the wonderful meet-the-author event in May, and for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.