Having read Alone in Berlin, and a biography of Hans Fallada (the amazing More Lives Than One), I came to read City of Women with some idea of the world I was stepping into. A world filled with conflicts, both political and social but also psychological, as ordinary Germans dealt with the often devastating effects of World War II on their lives. But of course I could never understand that world because I have not lived within it – the world of a German civilian in Berlin during World War II, in 1943 specifically, when Germany was edging towards failure. Fallada’s Berliners are grey and harried but still resilient and utterly determined; characters of this type appear in City of Women, some so similar they could have been Fallada’s (Egon and Ericha especially), but there is also great originality at work here.
Sigrid Schroder is a war wife, her husband Kaspar fighting on the Eastern Front. Sigrid is lumbered with not only a global conflict on her doorstep and an absent husband, but also with sharing a flat with his grumpy and often vindictive mother, who blames Sigrid for almost everything. She and the other older women in their building are of another generation to Sigrid, and it shows. They remember the Kaiser and how it ‘used to be’; and they are not willing to risk their routines and comforts for anyone. Mother Schroder is belligerent and angry, angry that her husband is dead and her son is away fighting, and all she is left with are furtive hours spent listening to illegal BBC broadcasts and a daughter-in-law she wishes she had never met. She is patriotic to the point of blindness, and yet she listens to the British broadcasts to try and find out if the news of the war that she hears from the Party (of course she is a member) is really true. A strange mix of staid belief and terrifying doubt, shot through with bitterness – Mother Schroder is no easy flatmate for Sigrid.
Much of this book is about what it means for Sigrid to be ‘Frau Schroder’ and the life she is supposed to be living, as opposed to the one she really has. She has a lover she longs for, long gone, her biggest secret; and she soon gets entangled in a side of the Home Front she never knew existed – protecting and hiding the people that the Gestapo and the Party would sooner shoot than look at. These people are of course mainly Jews, and it forces Sigrid to question the values of her society. What have these people ever done wrong? Not only the men, but the women, only housewives, and their children? Childless herself (another thing Mother Schroder blames her for) and married to a man absent from her both physically and emotionally, Sigrid cannot bring herself to let families be destroyed needlessly.
She is an interesting character. At times meek and afraid, and at other times sharply determined and brave, with both reluctantly domestic and desperately reckless sides to her personality. She says Yes and No to Mother Schroder, but also has vitriolic arguments with her; she is pandering to the Frau Obersturmfuhrer across the hall (a woman who defines herself by her husband’s rank – who becomes interesting later in the book), but unafraid to make secret drops and transport documents. She is also unafraid to show passion, something showcased spectacularly when she and her lover Egon have rather fumbling, urgent sex in a seat in the mezzanine of the cinema. As well as tension and risk, this novel is also dripping with sexuality. Everyone seems to be at it, and if they are not they are trying to get it. The feeling of desperation throughout Berlin extends not only to safety and missing loved ones, but also to a desire for closeness and reassurance; and a few minutes to forget the reality of one’s life and escape into pleasure. It is sometimes graphic but never gratuitous, and I’m sure even the most judgemental of us could understand how circumstances drive actions.
City of Women does not have the most groundbreaking premise – it can be found is several other books I’m sure – but it is filled with intriguing original characters that feel entirely real, and twists I never expected. Gillham’s writing creates atmosphere and mood like few others’, and I was right there with Sigrid the whole time. I was moved and shocked, gripped and engaged, and I’m so glad I read this novel.
Published by Penguin UK in September 2013.