Monday, January 20, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: City of Women by David R. Gillham

I just finished City of Women by David R. Gillham. This is another WWII book set in Berlin. I never used to read WWII fiction, but ever since The Book Thief, more and more of these novels are finding their way into my hands.

I entered a goodreads giveaway for this book last year. I didn’t win, but still wanted to read it. I was at the library picking up Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen and I saw City of Women on display. Since it has been on my goodreads list since I entered that contest, I thought: why not?

This novel focuses on a German soldier’s wife and stenographer named Sigrid Schroder. She’s a difficult protagonist to empathize with at first. She lives in a small apartment with her mother-in-law. The two grate on one another and the fault does not lie entirely with the mother-in-law. Sigrid’s husband, Kaspar, is at the Russian front, but she doesn’t miss him. The man Sigrid thinks about, pines for, is her lover, Egon Weiss. Egon is Jewish, and as the book opens, he is gone from Sigrid’s life, but it doesn’t seem, at first, as though she connects his Jewishness with his disappearance and the fact that it is Berlin in 1943. She must, but those thoughts are blocked.

The reader is informed about Sigrid’s relationship with Egon through Sigrid’s memories of events and scenes. It was a passionate relationship but not a pretty one. In fact, it was pretty awful. But passionate. And as we learn more about Sigrid’s childhood and her relationships in general, it isn’t so surprising that Egon meant so much to her.

Sigrid moves through her daily life, which in war-torn Berlin was a bleak and frightening existence, pretending to be a normal "good German." She keeps to herself, eyes closed to what is going on around her, trying to live for the past. But then, a young woman who is a barely an acquaintance, comes to her for help, inexplicably trusting her. Sigrid is drawn out of herself. She is forced to choose how to live, how to deal with the nightmare that is Nazi Germany.

Although City of Women has many elements in common with other WWII books that I’ve read — terrified citizens waiting out nighttime bombings in their basements; brave souls hiding Jews at the risk of their own lives; evil, tyrannical Gestapo — this novel fits more into the genre of thriller. It’s more cloak and daggerish. Everyone here has a secret. Nothing is as it seems. The novel moves back and forth in time, dropping clues about the who, what and why, and despite the usual claustrophobic feeling I get from WWII-set-in-Germany books, this book was a page-turner. It doesn’t have quite the appalling realism that some of the other WWII books have had, but it still provides a chilling dose of Nazi Germany.

I don’t read a lot of thrillers but I think, in the end, that’s what made this book work for me. I wasn’t crazy about Sigrid as a protagonist, although she grew on me as she found a sense of purpose and focus for her anger. If it had been a more typical book about people in Germany who were trying to do the right thing, against odds, I don’t think it would have had enough emotional depth. The characters are fascinating, but many of them are characters—they don’t seem all that real. It was the twists and turns of the plot that pulled me along.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't really think of the book as a thriller, but I think you're right. There really was a strong sense of secrets and danger, and that made it exciting for me. Great review!