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City of Women by David R. Gillham

Published by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam on August 7, 2012 

Sigrid Schröder is a stenographer in the Patent Office in 1943 Berlin. After eight years of living with her in-laws during her uninspired marriage to Kaspar, Sigrid begins an affair with a mysterious Jewish man who calls himself Egon. When Kaspar is sent to the Russian front to fight, Sigrid begins an affair with a second man, a wounded soldier, and meets a secretive woman named Ericha Kohl. Given the time and place, the nature of Ericha's clandestine activities isn't difficult to guess. The question is whether Sigrid will sympathize or rat her out to the authorities, as would any number of party members living in her apartment building (Sigrid's mother-in-law among them).

City of Women is novel of suspense mixed with a love story, laced with elements of a spy novel. Suspicion and betrayal are dominant themes. A character's true nature is not always apparent to Sigrid or to the reader; infiltrators and informants are everywhere, leading to a series of surprises. In the second half, the story loses some of its force, but it never becomes dull or commonplace, and tension mounts again as the story nears its end.

This is a story of moral choices. David Gillham illustrates the difficulty of making the "correct" choice under perilous circumstances, and does a remarkable job of creating sympathy (or at least understanding) for those who make the "wrong" choice. On occasion (one character suggests), it is necessary to engage in "improper" behavior if doing so serves a greater good. Another suggests that breaking the rules cannot be so easily justified, that serving a higher purpose may simply be an excuse to behave as one pleases. The questions posed are not easily answered. When is it acceptable to place some people at risk in order to protect others? Morally correct (albeit dangerous) choices are often obvious in hindsight, but City of Women makes the case that they are not nearly so clear when the consequences to those who must choose are potentially dire.

The ease with which injustice can be ignored when injustice is written into the law, or reported only anecdotally by the media, or readily accepted by neighbors and friends, is another of the novel's prevailing themes. "Don't bother yourself with what you cannot change," Kaspar tells Sigrid after she watches a synagogue burn to the ground. Yet there is a cost to tolerating the intolerable. As Ericha says, "You avert your eyes enough times, and finally you go blind."

Both Egon and Ericha want Sigrid's clandestine assistance, for different but related purposes. Sigrid's indifferent patriotism is more easily tested by her choice of bed partners than by Ericha's plea to help strangers escape harm. Sigrid's motivation for acting as she does is never entirely clear, apart from her penchant for contrariness. Her explanation -- to "avoid complicity" -- rings hollow; it does not explain why she acts when so many other residents of the "city of women" do not. My most significant reservation about the novel was my sense that Sigrid was sleepwalking through the story, a sense born of my failure to understand the reasons for her choices.

My second reservation is that the story wraps up a bit too neatly. Sigrid's ability to emulate a master spy in the novel's closing pages is difficult to accept. Still, it makes for a good tale.

During the first half, the narrative bounces around in time without transition. I often had to reread a paragraph after realizing that Sigrid was remembering the past rather than living the present. Disconcerting as that technique might be, I eventually adjusted. It does, after all, reflect the reality of how people think: walking along a path or looking out a window, lost in the memory of a distant event until something happens that snaps us back into the present.

In the end, my reservations about the novel are minor compared to my appreciation of its credible, suspenseful plot and its insightful illumination of complex moral issues.


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