City of Women is such a dark story. I couldn’t keep my hands off it. Those that haven’t been displaced by the war don’t have much to look forward to besides their cabbage soup, bomb raids and queue lines for rations. What remains of World War II Berlin is secrets and lust.
Sigrid Schroder appears to be a model German citizen with her job at the patent office and making it home for dinner with her mother-in-law. Sometimes she stops off at the cinema to devoid herself from what Berlin and her life have become. It is in the darkness of the cinema that she encounters both secrets and lust.
Her lover, Egon, is a Jew. He fulfils her needs unlike her husband Kaspar who is off fighting at the Eastern front. Her secrets with Egon do not end in the bedroom. She helps him as a bagman, making exchanges that are a violation of German law. As the hunt for Jews escalates in Berlin, Egon must disappear, leaving Sigrid once again in the shadows of the cinema.
Secrets find her once again through her neighbor Ericha, a young girl who is involved in something dangerous that leads to lying and stealing. Wanting to protect the young girl, Sigrid becomes involved in the lying and secrets that lead her to once again violate German law. Dodging the Gestapo, she makes a choice to choose humanity over being the good German wife.
City of Women is a complex novel. I surprised myself at how quickly I read it since it is not a light read. There are many flashbacks between the storyline, and the author does a great job at distinguishing between them. Sex is used as a vehicle in the story; many times carnal over loving. This didn’t surprise me, but seemed a way to process the strict rules and violence the characters were living with. Just be forewarned to expect unconventional sex scenes and descriptions.
Usually I feel conflicted when a male author writes from the perspective of women. In this case, Gillham is writing from the perspective of multiple women, hence the title City of Women. It is named so because of the overwhelmingly female population in Berlin while the men are off fighting for Germany. Although this novel takes place in 1943 Berlin, Gillham is asking all his readers to think, if placed in a situation to help a stranger, would you chose to?