City of Women by David R. Gillham
January 8, 2013 § 3 Comments
I can never resist a book about World War Two, nor books set in my favourite cities. So David Gillham’s City of Women, set in Berlin in 1943, attacked me on two fronts. War literature might seem a strange choice for a pacifist, but it’s never the military detail that captures my attention. It’s the “how it really was” aspect I want to know about: how people (civilians and soldiers both) cope with being the experimental raw material for the big boys’ games.
Sigrid Schröder has lived, until now, a fairly unexceptional life. After her marriage she and her husband moved in with her bitter, hostile mother-in-law, and when Sigrid’s husband is called up (making her a Kriegsfrau) the two women continue to live together. Sigrid’s only relief from this constant, needling antagonism is her time spent at work in the typing pool at the patent office, and her frequent cinema visits. The cinema is the perfect place to be alone, but also the perfect place for a variety of unexpected assignations, as the novel demonstrates.
Before the novel opens, Sigrid began an affair with a stranger she met at the cinema. Her lover turned out to be Jewish, and the punishment for fornicating with a Jew was severe, but she cared more about him than he did about the law. Now, though, she doesn’t know where he is or even if he is alive. She yearns to see him again even though she knows he never felt as passionately about her as she did about him.
We’re at the cinema with Sigrid again when a young woman rushes up to the seat beside her and asks her to say that they’ve been there together since the beginning. When the officials demand papers, ticket stubs and truthful answers, Sigrid defends the young woman, who is in fact her neighbour’s duty-girl (a helper provided to women who bear many children for the fatherland). Although it is almost nothing in comparison to what Sigrid later becomes involved in, this is perhaps the weak spot of the novel. She has no way of knowing what kind of trouble the girl might be implicating her in. Recognising this, Gillham makes Sigrid think carefully about her decision after the fact, but it still seemed to me the hardest part to swallow.
After they are safe, Sigrid demands an explanation. Over time, Ericha gradually tells her more about what she’s involved in, and Sigrid becomes implicated purely on the basis of knowledge. However, once she is actively involved, the novel settles down and stops worrying about its own plausibility. Ericha has been hiding U-Boats—people, mostly Jews, who are in danger under the Nazis—and Sigrid is now part of the operation. When a woman with the same name as her lover’s wife turns up with two little girls, shortly before her lover himself tracks her down, she finds herself weighing up some shocking options.
I don’t want to give away the rest of the novel, which is exciting and pacy without being full of blockbluster, but I can say that Sigrid discovers that her lover is not quite what she had thought, is taken by surprise by her husband’s return, and above all experiences the happy thrill of being alive and necessary.
I often have difficulty believing in the extent to which German characters are portrayed as total converts to the Nazi regime. It suppose it must have happened, both under Nazism and Communism. I just expect a lot more ambivalence and ambiguity, people who mouthed what they had to in order to stay alive, but tried not to get involved beyond that. City of Women has only one monofaceted character who can see nothing beyond unthinking obedience and respect to the regime.
The pictures above are of the UK and North American editions, respectively. I would not even have looked twice at this book if mine had come with the North American cover. If it weren’t for the subject matter, this wouldn’t be my type of book, but Gillham’s nuanced novel deserves a more intellectual audience than the North American cover anticipates. We all know, of course, that no men are going to read a book with the word “women” in the title, even if it is written by a man, but did Penguin have to reinforce that so wholeheartedly?
There aren’t, I suppose, many highly literary novelists writing about war–World Wars I and II, I mean. Last year saw quite a few literary novels about recent wars. Pat Barker does it for WWI. Who is her equivalent for WWII?