CITY OF WOMEN, a debut novel from David R. Gillham, is set in Berlin during World War II at a time when the city has become a city of women as the men are off fighting on various fronts. Picturing wartime Berlin, we typically think of the Nazis with swastikas and artillery moving through the streets, or the faces of Jewish families being ushered from their homes. But what of those left behind? Who were they, and what were their stories?
In CITY OF WOMEN, we meet Sigrid, a stenographer who is going through her days measuring them by a monotonous job, ration coupons, and life with her meddling mother-in-law who passes judgment --- and to whom she never measures up to the wife her son should have married. Sigrid’s memories are full of more than the gray days of the present --- she pines for moments with her Jewish lover, Egon Weiss, who filled her days with joy. In the blur of the war, he has disappeared.
One day, as she is sitting in the cinema, a young woman moves beside her and asks her to tell the Nazis who are searching the theater that they are together. It ends up that the young woman, Ericha, is helping Jews who are being faced with deportation. Suddenly, Sigrid too is involved with this mission, and along the way, a woman and her two daughters come into her care --- who she comes to believe are Egon’s wife and daughters, who also have been missing.
The entire book is laced with secrets and questions of who can be trusted. The tension is high and mirrors what those days in Germany must have felt like for the women left behind. Through it all, we see Sigrid emerge as a stronger person whose inner core and values change her enormously.
Gilham, who deftly blends history and fiction in this story, gives the women of Berlin a strong voice.