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city of women

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★★

More Berliners pack the aisles as the bus trumbles onward.  An odor of human dank deepens.  A familiar bouquet by now.  It is the smell of all that is unwashed, stale, and solidified.  It is the smell that has replaced the brisk scent of the city’s famous air.  The ersatz perfume of Berlin, distilled from all that is chemically treated and synthetically processed.  Of cigarettes manufactured from crushed acorns, of fifty-gram cakes of grit-filled soap that cleans nothing.  Of rust and clotted plumbing.  Damp wool, sour milk, and decay.  The odor of the home front.

(from City of Women, page 34)

David R. Gillham’s City of Women is a portrait of Berlin in 1943, when World War II had taken nearly all of the men off to fight, people were afraid to say what they really thought about Hitler and his chances of winning the war, the Jews who hadn’t left or gone into hiding were being deported, what food was available was nearly inedible, and women like Sigrid Schröder just put one foot in front of the other to make it through each day.  Sigrid acts like a good German wife; she goes to work each day at the patent office and comes home each evening to her insufferable mother-in-law.  But Sigrid spends her lonely nights at the cinema half-watching propaganda films and dreaming, not of her husband, who is off fighting in Russia, but of her Jewish lover, Egon.

Egon ignited passion in Sigrid and made her willing to do his black market deals despite the dangers.  But he wouldn’t or couldn’t love her the way she loved him, and he refused to discuss his wife and children, no matter how hard she tried to learn who he really was.  Sigrid is lost in her memories of him when she hastily covers for a young duty year girl who lives in her building and is supposed to care for the six children of a woman who earned the Mother’s Cross for procreating for the Reich.

Ericha refuses to explain why Sigrid needed to lie to the Gestapo on her behalf, and by the time Sigrid finds out, she’s too far involved herself and must think long and hard about what’s right and wrong during wartime.  But that’s the kind of soul searching Germans at that time couldn’t afford to undertake, especially for someone like Sigrid, who is already at odds with the Nazi party members monitoring the comings and goings and charity contributions of everyone in their apartment building and has somehow become friends with the pregnant wife of an SS officer and her siblings.

City of Women is a stunning novel about the chaos of war and the secrets people keep in order to survive the brutality and live with themselves when all is said and done.  Gillham expertly paints a portrait of wartime Berlin at the beginning of the end.  Sigrid’s story moves along at the perfect pace, building the back story of her affair with Egon, easing into her relationship with Ericha, and emphasizing the conflict with her mother-in-law and husband — all the time with a sense of tension and excitement, of something boiling beneath the surface.  Gillham shows the fear among the Germans, both of action and inaction, and as Sigrid moves deeper and deeper into her dealings with Egon and Ericha, readers can feel the danger lurking in every café, on every street corner, and even in the privacy of her home.  Sigrid’s story feels authentic in that she didn’t set out to do what she did but sort of stumbled into it.

City of Women was both difficult to read and difficult to put down.  Gillham focuses on a flawed woman who had grown so used to ignoring the atrocities being committed around her that she can’t help but be completely changed when she is forced to act.  It’s a novel that really underscores how easy it is to grow complacent, to do nothing, to lose oneself in the routines of everyday life.  Sigrid is far from perfect, but readers will recognize a little of themselves in her, making it easier to understand her choices.  And life-or-death choices must be made over and over during the course of the novel.  Gillham forces readers to think about how they would have behaved in Sigrid’s shoes, how far passion can drive someone to act, and how love and duty affect our decisions.  A highly recommended portrait of fear and longing, with rich prose that highlights the darkness of war and the freedom that comes from finding one’s true self.

historical fiction reading challenge

Book 37 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: City of Women is from my personal library.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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