City of Women by David R. Gillham
Publication Date: August 7, 2012
Publisher: Amy Einhorn/Putnam (Part of Penguin)
Target audience: Adult
Keywords: historical fiction, World War II, strong women
Format read: ARC paperback from Putnam (Thank you!)
Summary: In 1943, Sigrid is going through the motions — work, home, and sleep — while haunted by her Jewish lover, as her husband fights in the war. Soon she gets roped into helping to care for Jews looking for safety and finds herself with a family that could be her lover’s wife and children.
“You avert your eyes enough times and you finally go blind.”
Beautifully written and completely heart wrenching, City of Women is one of those books you are going to have trouble putting down.
Transporting you back to 1943, in the middle of World War II, Sigrid is a woman haunted by memories of her Jewish lover as she gets up, goes to work, and eats an unfortunate meal with her mother-in-law everyday while her husband is away fighting in the war.
Due to circumstances beyond her control, Sigrid falls into a friendship with Ericha, the caretaker of the children living on the floor below her. Ericha is part of a secret operation that is housing escaped Jews and hopefully moving them closer and closer to safety. Always drawn to reckless behavior, Sigrid agrees to be an accomplice and she is soon positive she is helping to care for the family of her lover.
Ericha morphs into an intriguing sidekick for Sigrid, and in their own way, help one another out in unexpected ways. I love how passionate Ericha was about their cause and what their mission was accomplishing. While she proved to be little irresponsible and immature during the novel, she was alarmingly and surprisingly wise beyond her years when it came to coming to the aid of others. She was willing to go above and beyond, and take excruciating chances.
Gillham does an impressive job of creating such tangible imagery with words but cloaking the story with a gray and stormy feeling for the novel’s entirety. Sigrid is easy to care for and connect with – from her passionless marriage and her difficulty with conceiving. She’s extremely sensual (in fact the whole book is) yet at the same time completely maternal and lives to care for people who deserve to be cared for.
During such an intense period of time when people are not sure if their families will ever be the same or if their country will ever feel like their own again, Gillham has presented a unique perspective of the female experience. It was common practice for women to find comfort with other men, and for others to tattle on those with lack of love for Hitler. It was not an easy time to trust anyone, and therefore, it was a lonely time for all. You never knew who was going to turn their back on you or put you in jeopardy somehow.
For someone who hasn’t read a historical fiction novel in quite some time, I was surprised at just how swept up I became in Sigrid’s story, after the first 50 pages or so. There were many twists and turns, discoveries, disappointments, and tragedies during the short amount of time we get to spend with her (and believe it or not, 400 pages go by so quickly). Despite a few of the German names that stopped me in my tracks, I would not let myself do anything else until I reached the final page.
Even so, once I was done, my mind didn’t drift too far from Sigrid and her story for the rest of the evening and even until the next week. City of Women is a powerful story that forces women to be independent when their world is thrown so off balance and nothing is certain. It’s about love, sex, friendship, flawed women discovering this untapped strength and bravery, and doing the right thing even if it means taking a risk. Gillham has presented a more than impressive debut, the product of obvious extensive research, and one that reminds us of the compassionate people that roam our world even when in the most hopeless of situations.