City of Women, by David Gillham, was another book club selection and another three star book for me. The club choices are the result of a collective vote, so we only have ourselves to blame… but part of the idea is to deliberately expose ourselves to books we might not choose in the ordinary course of life. City of Women is a second world war book, but set rather unusually in 1943 Berlin.
The title comes from the fact that most men of military age were away serving in the armed forces, mostly out east in the Soviet Union. Despite this, there seem to be enough men around to provide the main character (a woman who works as a typist in a minor government agency) with plentiful bed partners. The return from the eastern front of her wounded husband does little to interfere with her sex life, since their marriage was already in a precarious state when war broke out. Nobody seems especially bothered, or even surprised, by the state of affairs.
I found the book immensely dreary, I’m afraid. I suspect that in part this was a deliberate stylistic choice of the author, to convey to the reader how dreary wartime life in Berlin was. If so, it was all too successful.
On top of the daily grind of boring work, inadequate food and regular bombings, with only a cinema to provide official entertainment – and sporadic and rather mechanical sex as a diversion – there is a steadily developing plot of helping Jews to escape the city and the country. It is hard to decide if this is really an act of courage, or just one more way to escape boredom. For a few of the people involved, the actions are part of a moral stand, but for many, there is no real basis other than a rather unfocused sense of anger.
Personally I didn’t find that this theme integrated very well with the personality of the central woman, though perhaps the author feels that once again this is the point he is trying to make – in such a situation, unlikely responses are drawn out of ordinary people. The slightly dreamlike lack of volition, of just following along to see what would happen next, pervades the book.
For me this mix did not work. I found the combination of dull routine and improbable coincidence unconvincing, and was filled with a sense of unreality as I persevered through the book. I cannot give this book more than three stars – perhaps some people will find it more engaging than I, but other than the feeling of dogged endurance, I have not come away from the book with any deeper insight into this period of history, or the human condition in general.
On a purely technical note, the kindle version does not make proper use of the kindle navigation features, and there were a number of editorial and proof-reading slips. Since this is a Penguin book, and not self-published or small press, this highlights the issue that finding a major publisher does not at all guarantee a quality finished product.