What would you do?
City of Women, by David R. Gillham. Amy Einhorn, 390 pp. $25.95.
The women of 1943 Berlin lead multiple lives. On the one end, they are dedicated to helping the National Socialist Party for the benefit of their men on the front lines. On the other, they are passionate human beings, sick of hiding their femininity under heavy garments and curt Heil Hitlers.
Sigrid is one of these women. She’s trapped in a passionless marriage and stuck with her bitter mother-in-law who resents her for marrying her precious son. Her husband, Kaspar, is at war. He does not write her letters.
But Sigrid has a secret.
She often thinks back to the love affair she had with the Jewish man in the back of the cinema. Her family doesn’t know that she still keeps his letters in an old cigarette tin.
And as Sigrid goes about her life, split between the good German wife and the former lover of a Jewish man, she begins to notice the secrets of others as well.
The woman across the hall has died, and her apartment is soon occupied by a high-ranking S.S. officer and his patriotic family.
The blind man selling pencils on the streets corner seems to have an ear around all parts of town.
And the duty-year girl working upstairs seems to be up to something, and she wants Sigrid’s help.
World War II books are not hard to find, but Gillham finds a new perspective with City of Women. Berlin, at this time, is a void of most of its men. But even with them men of fighting in other areas of the country and world, a war still rages at home. This war is all but silent, though it’s no less dangerous.
Gillham describes his writing of Sigrid and City of Women in the back of the book:
I created the character of Sigrid because I wanted to write about a woman who has capitulated into the slavish routing that defines her daily life. Her present has become mind-numbing and tedious that she has given up on her own future. But when circumstances change, so does she. … Sigrid is already primed to break free from her passivity by a passionate nature she has been taught since childhood to keep in check.
This book is captivating, from beginning to end. Sigrid is at times vulnerable, though never without the strength that carries the reader through her story. And the choices she makes require us to ask ourselves how we would handle a similar situation.
“It’s easy to watch from a comfortable distance as people make choices with life-or-death consequences,” Gillham writes. “But the question is: If you were Sigrid, and a young woman seized you by the arm as you sat in the cinema, and begged, Please say that we came here together, what would you do? What would any of us do?”