TOP 50 REVIEWERon 28 August 2012
In David R Gillham's remarkable debut novel 'City of Women' the city is Berlin in 1943 at the height of the Second World War, and one of the women we meet is Sigrid Schroder, in her late twenties, blonde, beautiful and married to Kaspar who is fighting at the Eastern Front. Sigrid works as a stenographer for the Reichspatentamt, the Patent Office, and is coping under stressful circumstances, living with her unpleasant, critical mother-in-law, queuing for food and attempting to make their rations last, while all the time trying not to let the oppressions of the Nazi regime affect her too deeply.
The Berlin in this story is a bleak and austere city where its inhabitants exist in an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion, and where some have no qualms about informing on their neighbours to the Gestapo. Sigrid, therefore, needs to be very careful because although to outward appearances she appears the ideal German soldier's wife, she is leading a double life. Sigrid is having a passionate love affair with a Jewish man, Egon Weiss, who although married, is separated from his wife and children when they are forced to go into hiding. If having a Jewish lover is not perilous enough, Sigrid then becomes friendly with a young woman, Ericha, who lives in her apartment block and Ericha is another woman who is leading a double life. Ericha, young, brave and beautiful, risks her life daily by working for an underground organization providing safe houses for Jews and helping them to escape deportation, and it is through her friendship with Ericha that Sigrid realizes that she can no longer ignore the plight of those being persecuted by the Nazi regime, resulting in her becoming a key participant in Ericha's organization. When, by chance, she becomes involved in helping a Jewish woman and her two young children, who might just possibly be Egon's wife and daughters, Sigrid is placed in a difficult situation, and matters become even more complicated when two sisters and their wounded officer brother, Wolfram, move into Sigrid's apartment block, especially when Wolfram shows that he is sexually interested in Sigrid and that it would be in her interests to comply with his desires. And then, Kaspar, Sigrid's husband, returns home wounded from the front.
This is a rather remarkable debut novel; beautifully written, gripping, sensual and thought-provoking. As the author says in his Afterword, it is about ordinary people making hard decisions in extraordinary times; he says: "Sigrid Schroder helps a young woman [Ericha] evade an arrogant police detective, simply because she does not like bullies. A few months later Sigrid is being chased by the Gestapo through a train station, with the lives of four other people in her hands. How did she get there?" If you do decide to read this book, you will discover just how Sigrid finds herself in her situation and of the choices she has to make along the way and, at times, you might even ask yourself, as I did, what you would do if you were in Sigrid's shoes. Sigrid is not a character who necessarily evokes instant sympathy and we don't get to know her and her motivations quite as much as I would have liked, but she is a character who improves on acquaintance and, as we read through the novel, we learn there is a lot more to Sigrid than we see on the surface, especially when we get to the final part of the story. David Gillham certainly seems to have researched his subject well and he has provided his readers with what appears to be a skilful and atmospheric rendering of Hitler's Berlin, making this novel a fascinating, intense and compelling read.