Once you pick up City of Women by David Gillham (Putnam/Amy Einhorn, $25.95), it is difficult to put down. As you follow the protagonist, Sigrid Schroder, down the first pages of the novel, through her walk to the cinema on the drab and increasingly dangerous streets of Berlin in 1943, you enter the entangled web of memory, reality, and terrifying choices that comprise her life.
Sigrid, a German woman living in a cramped apartment with her mother-in-law while her husband is off fighting in the east, lives in a Berlin that is primarily inhabited by women whose husbands and sons are at war. These women are adept at keeping the illusion of society alive, but skillfully hide their true identities; they are old housewives who snitch on neighbors because they covet a radio, half-Jews who appear to be perfect Aryan wives of Nazi officers, or proper professionals conducting wild affairs. Sigrid is initially as callow and duplicitous as they, claiming not to smoke and sneaking drags of cigarettes behind buildings, speaking of her husband and thinking of her lover.
The balcony of the cinema serves as the crucial space of action in the novel, as well as its primary metaphor. Sitting in the cinema, Sigrid’s gaze is initially turned inward, and she is entrenched in herself, frustrated with her mother-in-law, and filled with an aching yearning for her Jewish lover who has gone into hiding. But Ericha Kohl, a feisty young girl who cares for German children by day and helps Jewish hideaways by night, interrupts her reverie early in the novel. She forces Sigrid to emerge from herself, and identifies Sigrid as different: “I’ve seen how you are. Around the apartment block. You hold yourself in. You hold yourself apart.” Another woman who becomes close with Sigrid, a half-Jewish lesbian whose brother is a powerful Nazi officer, tells her the same thing: “You’re an outsider, Frau Schroder…you wear it like a sign.”
Sigrid is pushed by these frank, brave women to look candidly at what surrounds her and at who she wants to be, and she is forced to choose whether or not she sits in the balcony as a voyeur or an actor. City of Women begins and concludes with Sigrid walking past “the blind man,” who gazes “from behind the dark lenses of his goggles” on passers-by. At the start of the novel, Sigrid is as blind as he; at its end, she has allowed herself to see, and, as a result, to manipulate her feminine power to appear one way and be another with moral purpose and powerful efficacy.
Ironically, it is Sigrid’s boss, Fraulein Kretchmar, a woman obedient to the rules and regulations of the Reich, who best articulates the book’s vibrant feminist imperative when she chides Sigrid for showing up late for work: “If one of my stenographers comes back fourteen minutes late from her midday break, it not only reflects poorly upon her, it reflects poorly upon me, and upon every woman here. Upon every woman in the Reich. We are all responsible to each other for our actions, Frau Schroder. As one woman is judged, so all women are judged.” Gillham’s novel reveals how much power women can wield when they set their sights far, work together, and align their values and their passions. And in focusing his imagination on this particular time and place, he forces us to turn our gaze from his pages to ourselves, asking what type of reader we are, and what type of woman.
Maya Bernstein works at UpStart Bay Area supporting innovation and entrepreneurship in the Jewish community, and lives in Palo Alto.