Book Review - City of Women by David Gillham

city of womenSynopsis: Whom do you trust, whom do you love, and who can be saved? It is 1943—the height of the Second World War—and Berlin has essentially become a city of women. Sigrid Schröder is, for all intents and purposes, the model German soldier’s wife: She goes to work every day, does as much with her rations as she can, and dutifully cares for her meddling mother-in-law, all the while ignoring the horrific immoralities of the regime. But behind this façade is an entirely different Sigrid, a woman who dreams of her former lover, now lost in the chaos of the war. Her lover is a Jew.

But Sigrid is not the only one with secrets.

A high ranking SS officer and his family move down the hall and Sigrid finds herself pulled into their orbit.  A young woman doing her duty-year is out of excuses before Sigrid can even ask her any questions.  And then there’s the blind man selling pencils on the corner, whose eyes Sigrid can feel following her from behind the darkness of his goggles.

Soon Sigrid is embroiled in a world she knew nothing about, and as her eyes open to the reality around her, the carefully constructed fortress of solitude she has built over the years begins to collapse. She must choose to act on what is right and what is wrong, and what falls somewhere in the shadows between the two.

In this page-turning novel, David Gillham explores what happens to ordinary people thrust into extraordinary times, and how the choices they make can be the difference between life and death.

It seems the new trend in World War II historical fiction is to show how everyday Germans lived through the ordeal, to illustrate that not all Germans were high-stepping SS officers, or informants or persecuted Jews. Some were normal people, trying to keep their heads down and their families safe under a repressive regime. How well  this new paradigm is being received I don't know. I suppose it depends on your relationship to the events.

It is this area of the war that David Gillham mines in City of Women (★★★★). It is a very good book. Well-written and tense with expectation. Sigrid Schröder is a well-rounded character, full of faults, passion and intelligence. I would absolutely recommend City of Women to readers who enjoy WWII fiction. However, what kept me from giving it five stars (and made me consider giving it three) is I felt Gillham chose the safe route with creating Sigrid by giving her a Jewish lover (which provides her motivation for helping the Jews, I suppose) and by not giving her children. When she decides to help, she is only risking her own life, and the life of the mother-in-law she hates and the husband on the Eastern Front she doesn't love. The tension comes from the readers innate knowledge of the Nazi regime instead of fear for innocent life, because Sigrid isn't innocent. She has been complicit by burying her head in the sand for years. Yes, she opens her eyes and decides to help and, of course the reader wants Sigrid to succeed. But wouldn't the risk have been greater, and meant more, if she put her own children in danger, or at the very least, people she loved?

A few years ago my book club had a discussion about World War II, the Jews and what we would all do if a similar situation arose today, in America. Of course, we all want to believe we would do the right thing, stand up for the oppressed and do whatever we could to save them. Who wouldn't want to be the hero to that story? But, truth and reality are murkier than fiction. Would you put your family in danger to save someone else or would you keep your head down and ignore the atrocities going on around you?  In Sigrid, Gillham tries to write that heroine and almost succeeds.