Sigrid is a typical Berlin woman in 1943, married to a solder who is off at the front, fighting for the Fatherland. She works every day as a stenographer in the patent office, collects her ration cards, and goes home to the small apartment she now shares with her overbearing, critical mother-in-law. On the outside, she appears to have a decent life, but inside, Sigrid feels beaten down by the dull routine of it. She is isolated, has no real friends, and feels stuck in this rut. But she lives in a world where unthinkable atrocities happen every day in the streets, where the residents of her apartment building huddle together in the cellar each night to wait out bombing raids, and where her own neighbor (or family member) could end up selling her out to the Gestapo for some minor grievance. It is a world ruled by fear, and to survive, you must fit in, stay quiet, and not make waves.
Sigrid’s quiet, repetitive, safe life is pulled apart bit by bit. She follows an impulse and starts a passionate affair with a stranger. A neighbor she barely knows comes up to her in the cinema and begs for her help in evading the police. Slowly, gradually, Sigrid begins to open her eyes to the world around her. Once aware of the horrible things going on, she must decide whether to remain silently complicit in her country’s insanity or whether to get involved, put herself at risk, and do what she can to help.
The historical backdrop here is fascinating – peeking into the world of ordinary Berliners, trying to live ordinary lives in the face of extraordinary events. With so many men off at war, the focus here is on the women who are left behind and the roles they played, as mothers, wives, lovers, friends, and conspirators. Gillham delves into aspects of World War II you might never have thought of before, like what it was like to be homosexual when that could send you to a concentration camp or what happened to people who were only part Jewish, way back in their family trees, where their Jewishness just might be kept hidden.
This novel is fast-paced and suspenseful, full of twists and turns that you never see coming. Two words that came up during our book discussion last night were raw and tense. Gillham puts you right in the center of the action, which also results in a very thought-provoking story. As Sigrid must face issues of right and wrong over and over again and constantly consider whether to save herself or put herself in danger to help others, you can’t help but think, “What would I do?” and “Who would I trust?” It is a powerful and haunting story that will stick with you for a long time.