City of Women caught my eye because I’ve been reading a great deal of non-fiction titles around this period of history and I was interested to see how a fictional account of World War II told from a German woman’s perspective squared up to the facts.
In City of Women, Sigrid Schroeder is more than just a German woman: she is the wife of a Nazi soldier and lives with his mother who is staunchly patriotic. Or rather, is willing to be staunchly patriotic if she thinks she’ll benefit in some way by treachery or betrayal. Therefore, Sigrid is taking an immense risk when she does two things. The first is that she has an affair. The second is that she agrees to help people who are hiding from the Nazis. Both require Sigrid to take immense risks, with no gain to her own life and with the very real risk of losing everything.
City of Women was a very good read for three reasons. First of all, it is well written, not overly sentimental, nor overly gritty, but balanced and steady. It draws you in, then pushes you back a little, over and over. You feel the distance from Sigrid that those around her must feel and that she herself feels. Next, the author portrays very well the dilemmas of many Germans during the Second World War, the fear of speaking up lest they be killed. However, the steps beyond that – where looking away, becomes looking at, becomes encouraging – remain a grim reality that this book does not shy away from. That said, this is not a witch hunt, nor an anti-German rant. It is just honest. Finally, Gillham cleverly captures the atmosphere of fear, suspicion, antagonism within a city in turmoil. There are no scenes within the concentration camps or outside of the city but the book still has a huge impact: the oppression, fear, confusion, guilt, anger and bitterness is felt with every page.
Sometimes a book is less about the story than the characters. Sometimes it’s less about the characters than the setting. In City of Women, Gillham has drawn together a dark time, a troubled soul, a beautiful city and the tragedy of millions. Through one woman’s tale he gives us a glimpse of the suffering and tragedy of those who lost their lives or freedom and the sickening day-to-day angst of those who retained theirs – but at what cost?