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Review: City of Women, by David R. Gillham
Putnam, 2012. 385 pp. $26.

I’ve never been tempted to read a book because of a cover blurb, and I wish publishers would scrap the whole idea. Everybody knows that blurbs happen because the editor or author has a friend who has a friend, and that many recognized writers are pleased to say a few kind words about a new book, because someone once did that for them.

So I’ve never been tempted, until now. Did it work out? Half and half.

Alan Furst, master of the World War II thriller, offers that City of Women faithfully re-creates wartime Berlin–and that it does, in style. You can smell the ersatz tobacco, taste the spongy potatoes, and, most important, feel the intense claustrophobia, to escape which, people spend afternoons at sickeningly dreadful propaganda movies. Terror wears down Berliners, whether from the RAF bombers that blast away on clear nights, or the Gestapo, and I probably don’t have to tell you which they fear more.

The Reichstag, or German parliament, after a bombing raid. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

The Reichstag, or German parliament, after a bombing raid. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Except for soldiers on leave, Berlin is indeed a city of women, elevated on the Nazi pedestal and shamelessly exploited at the same time. They are purportedly the lifeblood of the Reich, but prison or deportation await if they fail to report a neighbor’s slackness, show too little enthusiasm for clothing drives for the Eastern Front, or utter a syllable that may be construed as defeatist.

What rich, unusual material for a thriller, and Gillham begins well. Sigrid Schröder, a model wife with a part-time job at the patent office and a husband fighting in Russia, enters a passionate affair with a Jewish man. Throw in Sigrid’s mother-in-law from hell, with whom she shares a too-tiny apartment; a busybody who reports on her neighbors; and the existence Sigrid leads, starved of warmth, food, or purpose, and you have a great premise.

I like how Gillham portrays Sigrid, especially how she grows throughout the novel, and the window on her gritty, drab life held my attention. However, about halfway through, City of Women loses steam, having failed to keep its promises. Improbabilities multiply, and though I continued reading just to see how the story resolved, as a thriller, it’s flat.

For one thing, I find it hard to believe that Sigrid’s in danger, though enemies abound who constantly threaten her. The plot contains many surprises, but maybe fewer than the author intended, and rarely the kind that put Sigrid in worse trouble. Others may suffer, but not her. What trouble she has, she skates through, often thanks to guardian angels whose helpfulness left me scratching my head. Too many secrets are divulged for no apparent reason–other than that the reader needs to know?–and without serious consequence.

Gillham writes well, well enough to do better. He knows his historical ground, how to deploy telling detail, and craft tense dialogue. The beginning jumps around confusingly, but once he gets that squared away, the story moves smoothly–until the end, when it becomes bumpy once more. In his acknowledgments, he thanks his editor, whom he says went through the manuscript line by line, implying how unusual that is these days, a sad truth. But I think she missed quite a bit, most obviously where the story shakes and shudders, and the italics rattle like loose screws; nobody can speak two lines without grating on your nerves for emphasis.

That said, Gillham has talent, and I suspect what holds him back in City of Women is a lack of confidence, whether in himself, his readers, or both. I hope his next novel shows a surer hand, because if it does, it will be fine indeed.