Thursday, October 25, 2012

*City of Women, by David R. Gillham

Amy Einhorn/Penguin, 2012
392 pp

Wartime Berlin, 1943,  is the setting for City of Women, author David Gillham's first novel.  It paints a realistic portrait of a city where  people are "slowly suffocating on the gritty effluence of another year of war." It's a place where individuals have become "a number on a pay book, on a booklet of rationing coupons, a face on an identity card." Gillham's Berlin is a claustrophobic city of paranoia, fear, and constant propaganda, of regular night-time bombing raids and food shortages where people live day to day and try to get by the best they can under the watchful eyes of whoever might be looking.  And living in this city is Sigrid Schröder, whose husband Kaspar is away at the Eastern Front where, despite propaganda to the contrary,  the Nazis are being overpowered and defeated by the Soviet army.

Sigrid plods through her daily life working as a stenographer in the patent office then going home to her apartment building and her mother-in-law at night.  Her days rarely vary except for visits to the theater, not to see the movies, but to go and think in the balcony in "the seat of her memory," the one in the last row up against the wall.  It is there that she thinks about Egon, with whom she earlier had an affair, one that has to remain secret not only because Sigrid is married, but also because Egon is a Jew.  As the story opens, Sigrid's reverie is interrupted when a young woman sitting next to her begs her to say that the two of them had come to the theater together.  It isn't long before the Sicherhietspolizei (Sipo, or security police) enter the balcony and demand papers from the two women.  As it turns out, Sigrid does know who the other woman is -- a "duty-year girl" named Ericha who is currently assigned to a family in Sigrid's apartment building.  Able to convince the Sipo that they had been at the theater together, the two leave; Sigrid, figuring that she's just saved Ericha, wants to know what's going on, but Ericha's not talking.  Intrigued, Sigrid makes it her business to find out just what Ericha is up to, and makes a discovery that will not only change her life, but will lead her into making choices that reinvent it as well.  Throughout the novel, wartime Berlin provides a backdrop of time and place against which the main story of  Sigrid, Ericha, and Egon plays out.

That's the main story in barebones outline, and oh my gosh, readers are going crazy over this book!  The reviews are phenomenal, with readers praising this novel that they're giving 4 and 5 stars.  City of Women was even the selection of the month for Book Passage's signed first editions club, which is where I got my copy.  Gillham's depiction of the city is so well evoked as is his realistic wartime setting and atmosphere; he also has some wonderful characters who have interesting and tension-filled lives.  So why wasn't I as much in love with it as most other readers?

As the author notes in an interview
"I originally thought I might write a novel with a completely female cast of characters, because I wanted to explore wartime from a feminine point of view. But that fell flat after a while. I needed the dramatic tension of the love affairs to keep the plot moving and the suspense tightened."
Well, frankly, for me his decision is a pity, really, because as it happens, his original concept would have made this book multiple times stronger than it turned out to be.   The love-affairs angle does keep the suspense going once the plotline takes the reader into already-familiar territory about  the efforts to aid in the escape of  some of the remaining Jews in the city, trying to stay ahead of the authorities at all times.  Why go there? The original idea of "wartime from a feminine point of view" would have added something  new to the table in terms of  historical fiction based on this time period, something much more interesting than the story of a bored hausfrau who sleeps around, thinks she falls in love, decides to do something different and worthwhile with her life and makes choices that turn out to be incredibly dangerous for her.  Hanging everything on the "dramatic tension of the love affairs" actually detracts from the story, especially a) because the sex is unnecessarily repeated multiple times to the point of boring, and b) the " love affairs" leave Sigrid actually depending on the men she's slept with to help her out when she needs it. Truthfully, she doesn't sound like a woman who discovers her own inner strength as she figures out what she will do, and the book sometimes tends toward chick lit set against the background of the Holocaust. 

As far as suspense, it seems to me that a story from the points of view of women in this city should be able to provide plenty of drama and tension on its own.  At the very least, this is Berlin in 1943 where people are being watched, or are themselves agents of the watchers; the bombing raids create tension and a fear of nothing to go home to when the all clear sounds.  There are other female characters in this novel whose stories, had they been considered and more developed in terms of the original idea of "wartime from a feminine point of view," would have made for much better reading and may have offered more of a look at  what these women might have actually gone through during this time. 

As I said, this book is highly regarded by a huge number of readers, so once again, I find myself swimming upstream against public opinion, and that's okay.  I think I'd recommend City of Women to people who like their historical fiction on the lighter side; this one has more of a beachy feel rather than a serious examination of  lives where "regiments of husbands, uncles, and brothers have been mobilized and Berlin has become a city of women."

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