When I saw the book cover and title for City of Women by David R. Gillham, I was intrigued. When I read the publisher’s brief description for it, I knew I had to find a copy. I’ve read a lot of novels about World War II, most of which center around men who went to war or around the atrocities. Some center around those left behind in Britain or the U.S. but I don’t believe I’ve ever read a book about women left behind in Berlin.
It’s easy to paint all World War II Germans with a broad brushstroke but the truth is never that simple. City of Women provides an eye-opening glimpse into what it was like to be a woman living in Berlin then, and one lucky reader is going to win an advance readers copy (ARC) of it!
It’s 1943 in Berlin, a city whose men have almost all left to fight in the West and in the East. Berlin has essentially become a city of women, a city of frightened women. No one knows who they can trust anymore and everyone knows someone who trusted the wrong person, and disappeared during the night, so it’s essential for personal survival to not trust anyone.
“Passengers on the bus are lumped together like potato sacks. A few aging men with their newspapers, though mostly the city has been left to its women. Under the new conscription decrees, regiments of husbands, uncles, and brothers have been mobilized and Berlin has become a city of women.”
Sigrid Schroder is a very isolated and lonely woman who lives with her controlling, irritable, Party-member mother-in-law, in a Berlin apartment. Her husband, Kaspar, has gone to fight on the Eastern front in Russia and she doesn’t know if she will ever see him again. You might think this would make Sigrid inconsolable but in truth she’s ambivalent about it. She doesn’t wish harm on Kaspar but she doesn’t care if he comes back to her. In the beginning theirs was an okay marriage but living with her mother-in-law has taken a huge toll on her and there’s just no spark left in her marriage.
“’I don’t have much of an appetite.’
Another look. ‘We don’t waste food. It’s immoral. Not to mention illegal.’
‘I’m not wasting it. I’ll put it in my thermos. It’ll keep until tomorrow.’ Sigrid says as she stands and lifts her bowl from the table. ‘But if you think I’ve transgressed, feel free to ring up the authorities. I’m sure you can get a job at a ball-bearing plant after they haul me away for soup crimes.’”
The air raids are an ever-present reminder of how tenuous life can be. Despite Nazi PR saying they are winning the war and the Allied Forces are being defeated on all fronts, the British are bombing Berlin on an almost nightly basis and people’s nerves are on edge. Everyone with any sense knows the PR pronouncements are lies but no one mentions it.
Some people can’t take the stress of the constant air raids anymore and crack. Sigrid’s downstairs neighbor, Frau Remki, is one such person. One night during a raid when someone curses the British for bombing them, Frau Remki begins ranting against Hitler and his megalomania being the cause instead of the British. Everyone holds their breath in horror because, although many have the same thoughts, they know her days are now numbered. Sure enough, the Gestapo come to take her away not long afterward. Someone in the building turned her in.
“It’s said that if you can hear a bomb whistle, then you’re safe. It’s the bomb you don’t hear that rips the roof from your building, pulverizes the walls, and buries you alive in a heap of smoldering slag. Still the whistling builds up inside you like a scream. You can’t help but hold your breath.”
Everyone thinks Sigrid is the model soldier’s wife but, if they knew the truth, she’d be dead. Sigrid has a lover, Egon, an elegant man who she met in the movie theater – a Jewish man who’s hiding in plain sight. She’s obsessed with him and he causes her to re-examine everything she’s been taught. She’s no longer able to turn a blind eye to what’s going on around her, even though doing so has kept her as safe as it’s possible to be in a place where anyone who doesn’t like you can tell the Gestapo tales that will get you tortured and killed with no recourse.
“’But my wife. My children. They’re quite simply none of your business. None of our business.’
The words hit her with the weight of stones. For an instant, and not for the first time, she felt herself to be utterly alone. Alone, as if she lay dead in her coffin. The feeling emptied her completely, even of tears.”
She’s also befriended a girl, Ericha, who’s performing her duty year by helping a soldier’s wife in the building who has a number of children. The only problem is that Ericha keeps skipping out on her job. Although Sigrid intends to initially counsel her on not getting into trouble, she’s soon drawn farther and farther into Ericha’s secret life.
These two relationships collide in a way that opens Sigrid’s eyes to a world of treachery and danger that she had previously managed to avoid out of self-preservation. Now she can’t ignore what’s happening and must decide whether to risk her life to help preserve others who are just as deserving. And then there’s the huge problem of who she can trust with these deadly secrets, any one of which would get her tortured and killed in an instant.
At the heart of City of Women are two consistent themes, women’s friendships and a romance that withstands all logic and reason. In addition, an important element is the inability to remain blind and ignorant about marginalized people when confronted with the in-your-face reality that they are just as worthy and human as everyone else.
David R. Gillham has written a masterful novel in City of Women. It transcends fiction and becomes disturbingly real very quickly. Each person in it has a depth that doesn’t allow you to label anyone as a villain – each is simply someone doing what they feel they have to do to survive, and all are in imminent fear of their lives. I was swept up into these women’s lives immediately and stayed on pins and needles all the way through. I’m not exaggerating when I say this is one of the most powerful novels I’ve read in a long time, and you know how much I read! I highly recommend this moving novel!
Can’t wait to read it?
City of Women will be released in the U.S. on August 7, 2012; however, it’s available for pre-order from your favorite bookseller below. Just click the button to go there to get it.
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One lucky reader will win an ARC of City of Women by David R. Gillham!
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