Although I don’t usually read novels about Word War II, I was impressed with Gillham’s account of the deformation of the human character in
1943 Berlin. As the Royal Air Force strafes the city, stenographer Sigrid Schröder lives a meager existence with her mother-in-law while her husband, Kaspar, is fighting on the Front. Sigrid is one of the many Germans who,
by accident and circumstance, are caught up as resistance agents in the maelstrom that has become Europe.
Gillham portrays a landscape that closes in on his characters as their luck runs out,
forcing them to accept the weekly rationing, the frigid temperatures, and the muffled talk of the Bolshevik resistance as they pound the Reich’s soldiers on the Eastern Front. The streets of Berlin are tinged with slow mold and decay and a dark, brooding atmosphere that reflects the scent of betrayal behind every action.
Using his heroine as a cipher for ordinary people and how their lives were upended--and often destroyed--by Nazism’s murderous ideology, Gillham has Sigrid find solace at the cinema,
where she knows she must move forward. There’s no way for her to tell who is
trustworthy among her acquaintances and comrades. When she meets a Jewish man on the run, his gruff sexuality suddenly blinds her to any form of allegiance she may have had to Kaspar or to the Reich.
Gillham gorgeously captures the furtive nature of Sigrid’s trysts with Egon, the attraction of his dangerous world and the desperation of her own, a quiet state where for a time she is pampered and seduced by Egon in the back row if the movie theatre and a room at the top of a dingy flight of steps where he consumes her in a “shellacked heap of sweat.“ Sigrid knows she is way over her head in this bleak, heartless landscape.
She becomes a hostage to Egan’s predatory nature, driven by a confusing set of emotions and a desire to be useful to the young Fraulein Ericha Kohl and her world of the Pension Unsagbar. This is where Auntie’s periodic “guests” live in narrow windowless rooms, huddling under shadows
and peeing into tin buckets.
An Aryan “fornicating with a Jew,” much less a “criminal Jew,” could mean prison or at worst detention camp. Here is true conflict in the novel as the fates spin their thread in an ashen twilight. The fact that Goebbels has sworn to make Berlin “Jew- free” is even more outrageous considering the privileged lives of “the catchers,” those Jews who are given independence and special rewards for their service to the Reich. Sigrid at first hesitates at being conscripted into this dangerous environment, but she's trapped by the horror of what she sees around her, and then by compassion, as the numerous acts of violence finally clarify her perspective.
What elevates City of Women from schlock melodrama is the allegorical nature of its sinister and disturbing subject matter. Far from
giving us a comfortable read, Gillham provokes us into a reaction with his vivid descriptions--the air raid shelters that develop their own personalities, and the passengers on the buses who are lumped together" like potato sacks." While the city is indeed left to its women, losing half its population to death, chaos and war is never an appealing thing to observe.
While this story has been told time and again, Gillham knows the underpinnings of his world, and he appreciates how essential it is to maintain the style of cool, credible intelligence even when later plot twists and a series of predicable situational struggles threaten to derail the undercoating of tension that hides behind the mask of "business as usual."