Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Resistance fighter Antonia is out in the forest behind her family’s beloved farm when the Nazi soldiers arrive. As she sees her sister Lena and her young nephews herded towards the trucks, guns pointed at their heads, she faces a split-second, heart-wrenching decision: to stay hidden, stay free and continue the fight. Or to give herself up and go with her family to protect them—no matter what lies ahead.
As she clutches her nephew’s little hand in hers, her other arm tight around Lena, she knows she has made the right choice. And as the truck rattles towards a brutal labor camp, and they start to wonder what fate has in store for them, Antonia’s only thought is of how to escape.
Because before they were captured, Antonia worked tirelessly to free her country from those who had turned her homeland into a bloody battleground. By her side had been clever, handsome Viktor. The man she was to marry, whose love shone like a light in the darkness of war surrounding them.
Antonia does not know if Viktor has been caught or executed. But she knows she must try to find a way back to him and she cannot wait any longer to be saved. Her precious nephews will die without proper food and they could all be killed at any moment.
The world outside the camp gates is full of danger, but they have to find a way through them first. And that is their only hope, even if it costs Antonia her life. The Nazis have taken everything from her, but they can never take away her courage…
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Woman at the Gates to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
The Woman at the Gates is the second book I have read by Chrystyna Lucyk Berger in the space of a few months. This new story has shed a light on the plight of people from the Ukraine during World War Two and their battle to free their country from repression from foreign rulers. I have read lots of books set during the war but none that focused on Ukraine and I felt this book gave a fascinating insight into the war which I had not given any previous thought to. It brought home yet again the fact that so many countries and such a wide variety of people were affected by the actions of one man hell bent on causing destruction and achieving as much domination as possible. Although prior to the war the Ukraine was struggling with those in power who sought to supress the country’s language, traditions and cultures.
The blurb for this book is slightly misleading as I was expecting the majority of it to be set in a slave labour/concentration camp. Yes, this does feature but instead for a brief period in the middle of the story. Rather the book takes place over several years beginning in 1941 and leading right up to the years after the war and the journey and fight that Antonia, our main character, undertakes is one full of bravery, tenacity, courage and grit.
Summer 1945 and Antonia Kozak remembers the times when life was simple and all they had to worry about was harvesting the apricots from her families farm. How times have changed as along with her sister Lena and her nephews Antonia is now what is termed as a displaced person. The homeland they once knew and cherished has irrevocably changed through the trauma and destruction wrought by war. She awaits news of the love of her life and wonders can they ever claim back some semblance of normality? Was all she was involved with worth it? From the moment Antonia is introduced you just know she will be a powerful character and different from many women. Her job as a university professor gave her independence in her work life and she is clever and not afraid to express her opinions.
We are taken back to 1941 to see how the situation she finds herself in at the beginning of the book came about. We see how the need for freedom is necessary for survival and that she is proud to be part of an underground resistance network who wish the Ukraine to enjoy freedom and independence once again in the future. Antonia came across as a woman ahead of her time. She had a voice and wasn’t afraid to use it and was well able to play a cat and mouse game of ducking and diving and evading the enemy to outwit and survive. The Soviet Secret Police were a force to be reckoned with but Antonia was sharp and collected, a woman who could hold her own in any setting who had a thirst for liberty at her centre but also the deep seated need to avenge her brother’s death. Viktor, a fellow professor and her long time lover, is just about to propose to her when the worst happens. The scenes which followed were at times difficult to read both shocking and brutal but they needed to be there for the reader to understand what happened at the time and what made Antonia even more determined to see good win over evil.
The plot itself took many diverse twists and turns and there was a lot of moving about in terms of setting which on reflection I think worked well because it did reflect how so many people were on the move at the time trying to escape persecution only to fall into the hands of those they feared the most. It felt like the story branched into two strands as we follow Ivan, a friend of Antonia’s since childhood and a fellow resistance member, as he deals with his own experiences of war. He has harboured a secret for many years and I enjoyed how this came to light. But I have to say when the chapters focused on Ivan, I found them heavy going as there was a lot of detail about battles and where he was located and so many characters were introduced that I found myself longing to get back to Antonia and her family to see where they were and how they were coping. I did love Ivan though, there was something warm and embracing about him. Definitely it was Antonia’s strand of the story that held me in its grip the most and what she goes through is truly appalling and the fact that this based on true events and people only serves to heighten the emotion you feel whilst reading. At the same time she deserves nothing but admiration because throughout all her experiences and the incredible lows she keeps her family at the forefront of her mind, placing herself in terrible situations, always thinking one step ahead in that endless search for freedom and eventually perhaps happiness.
Overall I really enjoyed the book as a whole but there were just two things I felt that weren’t quite right for me. They didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story but still they niggled away at me. The first being I felt the need for a brief background to the political situation in the Ukraine prior to the beginning of the story. When I reached the end of the book the author had a detailed note about why she came to write the story and how it was based on her own family’s history. But truthfully, because I had never researched or paid much heed to this country before, I found myself starting the book confused as to who was in charge and the reasons this had come about? Should they have been in power and how did Antonia and her compatriots join together to fight for their independence? I knew the country wanted to break free from the clutches of the government in control and yes there was historical background added in amidst paragraphs but admittedly I did remain confused and would have preferred just a little bit of extra information at the start.
Secondly, I thought there were too many characters to keep track of. I found myself trying to figure out should I focus on such a character over another only then to discover they wouldn’t go on to feature that prominently. Perhaps lessening the number of characters introduced would have helped me gravitate more towards the central characters than perhaps I did at times. These were the only two issues I had with the book. They aren’t major issues because I did find this to be a very good read but if these two things had been rectified I wouldn’t have found some parts as heavy as I did. Pushing this aside The Woman at the Gates is another interesting and a very worthwhile read from Chrystyna Lucyk Berger. She has a flair for writing in the historical fiction genre and I would be interested to see how she would approach a subject that was different from that of World War Two. This is definitely one to read and I already look forward to what time and place the author will next bring us to.