I wasn’t sure if I was in the mood to read yet another book about World War II when I came across a review for City of Women by David Gillham, but I’m so glad that I did. This novel is meticulously researched historical fiction, but also, a beautifully told love story. The author brings 1943 Berlin to life, with such incredible detail, that he deftly drops the reader into a terrifying time and place, with all the sights, sounds and smells of war torn Berlin. Gillham’s characters come to life fully in this novel about the lives of ordinary women left behind, and now trapped, in 1943 Berlin during the height of the war, when most of the men have been conscripted and sent away. The heroine, Sigrid Schroder is a discontented hausfrau in a failing marriage, who works as a typist in the patent office, and lives with a hostile, party-serving mother-in-law, in a building where the party line is strictly enforced. She is on the surface a good German housewife and worker, whose husband has been sent to the Russian frontline. She has held tightly to her dull routine, despite disappearing rations, increasing anxiety, suspicion on all sides, and nightly allied air raids.
Underneath the surface, she has erotic fantasies and is secretly longing for her Jewish lover, who has disappeared as mysteriously as he came into her life. In this rich cinematic novel, many of the pivotal decisions and stark choices she is forced to make are presented to her while she sits in the farthest seats of a cinema balcony, where she goes to find “an empty place” in her life, away from the noise of home and work. The small audiences in the theater are encouraged to join in with the patriotic songs blaring from the loud speakers, as the Nazi propaganda machine step up its efforts to keep those at home in check. The story unspools as Sigrid becomes involved with a rebellious young neighbor and learns about the young woman’s clandestine activities to hide Jews and other “undesirables” from the Gestapo and deportation. At about the same time, she becomes involved a couple of women next door, whose SS brother returns from the front, and turns out to be not quite what he seems. The author recreates a world where terrified citizens regularly report family and friends, and where most tread very carefully so as not to draw any attention to themselves. It is not surprising then to discover, that many of those closest to Sigrid, are revealed to be something other than who they seem to be. In this world where treachery, betrayal and death are everyday occurrences, Gillham manages to show the reader a place out of time, where not all Germans are bad, Jews are not all victims, and loyalty is always a very fragile commodity. The author also skillfully builds the suspense which will keep most readers turning the pages.