An ordinary hausfrau struggles to get by in her day to day existence in wartime Berlin, her husband fighting on the Eastern Front. Then one evening a gaunt, waif-like girl, not yet twenty, lands suddenly in the seat next to her in a darkened movie theater with a plea that she tell the police a lie on her behalf. She accedes to this plea, and although she doesn’t know it yet, the hausfrau’s life has been changed forever.
In City of Women David R. Gillham captures the hardships, the bombastic propaganda, public paranoia, and violent oppression of Berlin in the winter of 1943-1944. Frau Schröder, married to an officer in the Wehrmacht, has Aryan good looks at nearly 30, and owns a pretty healthy rebellious streak. This comes from the continuous abuse and denigration heaped on her first by her mother and grandmother, and then during the story by her hateful and vituperative mother-in-law. This is the story of how Frau Schröder’s illusions peel away one by one, how as she plunges into the shadowy world of smuggling and treason her actions become more and more reckless and daring. You will turn these pages compulsively to see the plots and counter-plots, and your nerves will jump along with hers as the stakes become higher and higher.
I once again praise and marvel at debut fiction. Such mastery – it’s such a gutsy subject matter and carried off with such assurance, that I recommend this atmospheric and brilliantly-plotted novel very highly. I have not read fiction with an inside view of wartime Berlin before, but here it is, with RAF bombing raids, wartime rationing, crowded transit, and the Führer’s face everywhere. More importantly, though, we witness the moral choices these characters make in the upside-down, unreal world around them. And this is Frau Sigrid Schröder’s – and our – journey. This is brilliantly realized and highly effective. It unwinds beautifully, with new surprises and new threats – and our heroine’s ever-escalating steps to cope with all of it. Take this up, definitely.