David R. Gillham is making quite the splash with his gripping portrait of an ordinary World War II hausfrau in extraordinary circumstances: Praise has been lavished on City of Women by historical fiction brethren Alan Furst, Margaret Leroy and Paula McLain, and rights have been sold in multiple countries. Not too shabby for a first-time novelist. And also not surprising. Full of sharp twists, sex, muddy morals and a Berlin that breathes, Gillham’s thriller delivers.
Beautiful, dutiful Sigrid Schröder is an apparently perfect German wife—other than the fact that she’s borne no children for the Fatherland—but she has a secret. Instead of thinking of her husband freezing on the Russian front line while she peels rotting potatoes and puts up with her razor-tongued Party member mother-in-law, she recalls the heat of the lover who recently swept in and out of her life. He was mysterious, but this much she knows: He was a Jew, and she desperately wants him back. Even so, she largely turns a blind eye to the Reich’s cruelties, feeling powerless against its might. But when her rebellious, secretive young neighbor confronts her with a stark choice, Sigrid must decide whether she is brave enough to save the lives of complete strangers.
Gillham has studied the Second World War and women’s roles in it for more than two decades, and it shows. Berlin’s streets circa 1943 come to life—not just the sights, sounds and smells, but also the tension in the air. Who can be trusted?
The author ably depicts the strengths, desires and fears of women in a city both nearly emptied of its men and permeated with betrayal. His vivid characters keep the pages turning while the historical details enlighten and deftly underpin his complex plot. Readers who like their intrigue charged with big issues and warmed by very human needs will enjoy their hours in Sigrid’s shoes.