I have always been drawn to works of historical fiction that describe regular people trying to live their lives during periods of great upheaval and transformation. When I read a positive review of David Gillham’s debut novel City of Women, I decided to pick up a copy. The story takes place in Berlin during the final grim years of the Second World War, as Allied bombers pound the city and losses on the Eastern Front mount. It is a matter of months until Nazi Germany will be defeated. But daily life goes on and many professions in Berlin (and all over Germany) are now filled by women. In fact, it can be said that Germany in 1943-45 had become a country of women. Such is the case with the novel’s protagonist Sigrid Schröder, who works as a stenographer and lives dutifully with her mother-in-law, while her husband is off fighting on the Russian front. She swallows all the propaganda that is being fed to every citizen, and until the latter part of the war she doesn’t seem to question her duties and the hardships imposed on her and others for the cause of the Third Reich.
When she isn’t being forced into a bomb shelter, Sigrid likes to spend her evenings at the cinema. She relishes the anonymity and relative isolation that these cinemas afford, even though she recognizes that the films being shown are pure Nazi rubbish. The cinema is where Sigrid’s humdrum life takes a turn. It turns out that the upper balcony is a place where couples rendezvous for discrete trysts. Sigrid meets a mysterious black marketeer named Egon, and they begin a torrid sexual relationship that moves from the cinema to empty apartments and any other convenient location. Egon slowly brings Sigrid into his web and she begins running errands for him. Once Egon disappears (readers wonder why an eligible male is not off at the front), Sigrid moves her reawakened carnal desires to a convalescing German Army officer two stories up in her apartment building (this interlude is less well spun than others in the novel). Meanwhile, Sigrid must deal with the suspicions and dislikes of her mother-in-law and her boss. Sigrid soon befriends her teen-aged neighbor Ericha and helps her to move and hide German Jews. Egon reappears (we find out that he is Jewish) and Sigrid takes up an even more active role harboring and aiding Jews. The last few chapters put the reader in a page-turning mode. The final twist in the novel tidily brings things full circle and the action (which is lacking early on in the novel) begins to pick up.
Aspects of the novel tend to be a little too tidily constructed, leaving one to question the plausibility of certain episodes. One also has a hard time identifying with most of the characters (I suppose that should be the case; who would want to identify with citizens of the Third Reich?). Nevertheless, Gillham does a remarkable job bringing wartime Berlin alive for the reader (even though he points out in his Afterword that almost none of the locations for seminal scenes in the novel exists anymore). He also artfully brings out the two sides of each primary character: the façade and the true being inside. At the end, Gillham poses the question that all people who find themselves in extremely abnormal situations must ask themselves, “What would you do?” Sigrid makes her decision. Ultimately all Germans, no matter how morally or amorally they acted during the war, would soon be on the wrong end of a very heavy Russian boot—especially the women of Berlin.