City of Women
|listen to a Penguin Audio excerpt|
It is 1943—the height of the Second World War. With the men taken by the army, Berlin has become a city of women. And while her husband fights on the Eastern Front, Sigrid Schröder is, for all intents and purposes, the model soldier’s wife: She goes to work every day, does as much with her rations as she can, and dutifully cares for her meddling mother-in-law, all the while ignoring the horrific immoralities of the regime.
But behind this façade is an entirely different Sigrid, a woman who dreams of her former Jewish lover, who is now lost in the chaos of the war.
Sigrid’s tedious existence is turned upside down when she finds herself hiding a mother and her two young daughters—whom she believes might be her lover’s family—and she must make terrifying choices that could cost her everything.
“David Gillham’s excellent new novel, City of Women, is built on one of the most extraordinary and faithful re-creations of a time in history—Berlin in World War II—that I’ve ever read.” —Alan Furst, New York Times–bestselling author of Spies of the Balkans
“In this moving and masterful debut, David Gillham brings war-torn Berlin to life and reveals the extraordinary mettle of women tested to their limits and beyond. Powerful and piercingly real. You won’t soon forget these characters.” —Paula McLain, New York Times–bestselling author of The Paris Wife
“Haunting and sensual, City of Women is a story of survival, of the unfathomable choices made and consequences suffered by those pushed to the brink. David Gillham has depicted a little-known aspect of the war with humanity and grace.” —Pam Jenoff, internationally bestselling author of The Things We Cherished
“If you enjoy beautiful story telling, gripping suspense, and a distractingly romantic plot, this is the book for you! An exciting, page turning read!” —Kathleen Grissom, New York Times–bestselling author of The Kitchen House
“City of Women is a big, brilliant, passionate book, a masterful evocation of Hitler’s Berlin in all its claustrophobia, duplicity, and fear. This is a thriller of searing intensity. . . . I found it utterly compelling.” —Margaret Leroy, New York Times–bestselling author of The Soldier’s Wife
An Author Essay, by David R. Gillham
One way I tried to build the atmosphere of Sigrid’s Berlin was by introducing wartime movies, music, and food into the narrative. Of course, when Sigrid attends the cinema, it not really to watch a movie. She’s looking for a small space of privacy, which is why she favors war movies. These didn’t do very well at the box office in Berlin; the audiences for them were usually sparse. The average Berliner was less interested in seeing propaganda films such as Soldiers of Tomorrow than Heinz Rühmann in escapist fare such as The Gas Man, or Gustaf Gründgens in a lavish eighteenth-century costume drama. For more recent movies that capture either the essence of Berlin or the stunning contradictions of the war years, I’d recommend Cabaret and Europa, Europa.
You can still find a lot of popular music from the time period. In the book, Sigrid’s mother-in-law is listening to Lale Andersen singing on the radio. Andersen’s number-one wartime success was the ubiquitous “Lili Marleen”—a song that created such a stir that even British forces fighting in North Africa adopted it as one of their favorite tunes.
Naturally, classical music was still at the top of German radio playlists during the war: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach—though the music of all Jewish composers was banned from the airwaves. If you’re interested in the antic, often slightly loopy music of pre-Nazi Berlin, which Sigrid would have listened to while growing up, there are still recordings available of entertainers such as Margo Lion, the famously hilarious cabaret singer, or the popular ensemble known as the Comedian Harmonists. Marlene Dietrich was “falling in love again” in the golden twenties and early thirties, and later recorded a number of her songs from the era in English. The internationally acclaimed chanteuse Ute Lemper has released renditions of cabaret songs that were all the rage in Berlin between the wars, in both English and the original German (“Ich Bin ein Vamp!” for example). Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester are phenomenal at re-creating the music of that time (from “Fräulein, Pardon” to “Mein Gorilla.”)
For those interested in what the average Berlin Hausfrau was serving at the table during the war, I recommend Gisela McBride’s Memoirs of a 1000-Year-Old Woman. Her autobiography stretches from the late twenties to the war’s end, and is chock-full of details illuminating everyday life, including recipes. (I cannot vouch for the healthfulness of any of these dishes, or the taste, but if you need recipes for cabbage dumplings, cabbage fish rolls, cabbage pie, or cabbage strudel, you’ll find them there.)
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