Novels of moral complexity can both entertain us and challenge us to think about what we would do in a difficult, ambiguous or ethically charged situation. Perhaps one of the most challenging scenarios we can imagine is how far we would go to save the life of another --- someone who’s innocent and helpless, or even someone less so. To this end, authors have turned to the events of the Holocaust --- and writer David R. Gillham has joined their ranks with his debut novel, CITY OF WOMEN. It's the story of a German woman who makes an extraordinary emotional and physically perilous journey in Berlin in 1943.
"CITY OF WOMEN is a lovely book despite its dark and unsettling subject matter.... Gillham’s novel is haunting and brutal, confident and engaging. He captures quite well the spirit of Berlin during the last period of the war as German anxiety increases, and the food and fuel supplies run out. It is both a worthwhile literary exploration of morality and an entertaining story."
Sigrid Schröder is going through the motions as a German wife during the Nazi regime, but that is not enough. Neighbors note that she is less than enthusiastic about the Führer and his war, and seems cold, distant, or even haughty. But Sigrid is a woman of passion and emotion, and when she begins an affair with an enigmatic Jew, it sets off a series of events and responses that change her life and the lives of those around her. Her relationship with Egon Weiss forces her to confront the loveless marriage she has with her husband and opens her eyes to the reality of what is happening to the Jews of Europe.
When her husband is sent to the front lines in Russia and she befriends a young woman working to smuggle Jews and others out of the country, Sigrid makes the decision to risk her own life to help others trying to escape Germany. Soon she is in great danger as the Secret Police and others follow and threaten her, as her relationship with her angry mother-in-law deteriorates, and as her affair with Egon is further complicated by the charismatic SS officer next door and the arrival of a mother and her two daughters into the underground network in which Sigrid illegally works.
For much of the novel, Sigrid is not exactly a sympathetic character, especially as she imagines denouncing her lover’s Jewish family to the Gestapo so that she can have him all to herself. But throughout the story, she is an interesting figure: complicated and morally shaky. She is judgmental and unfaithful, and her initial interest in the work of the underground may be part curiosity and part selfishness. But over time her feelings shift, her ideology becomes more sophisticated, and the risks she takes on behalf of others are greater.
CITY OF WOMEN is a lovely book despite its dark and unsettling subject matter. While Gillham’s prose verges on dreamy, the Berlin he recreates is a nightmarish city of falling bombs, maimed soldiers, hunted Jews and suspicious neighbors. There is violence, raw sexuality, sadness and terror, all of which Sigrid embodies. However, the dialogue is often stilted, formal and forced, and Sigrid is in the habit of dully repeating back everything the person she is speaking with says, making conversations in the novel slow and sometimes frustrating. Readers perhaps will be shocked both by Sigrid’s actions and motivations, but Gillham writes in his afterword that his intention is to get us to contemplate the kind of decisions Sigrid was faced with so that we may ask ourselves what we would do in similar dire circumstances.
Gillham’s novel is haunting and brutal, confident and engaging. He captures quite well the spirit of Berlin during the last period of the war as German anxiety increases, and the food and fuel supplies run out. It is both a worthwhile literary exploration of morality and an entertaining story.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on August 9, 2012