I give David Gillham credit for a mostly good outing in telling this story of a German woman's growing resistance to Nazism from that woman's perspect...more I give David Gillham credit for a mostly good outing in telling this story of a German woman's growing resistance to Nazism from that woman's perspective. In many ways, he did a good job.
I liked the development of the relationship between the anti-Nazi activist Ericha and the main character, "kriegsfrau" Sigrid.
Loved the gobs and gobs of German in-speak, atmosphere, and war trivia. Other reviewers have mentioned this stellar aspect of the book. Historical fiction that is very well researched is such a pleasure to read. As others have noted, you could smell and taste the airless Berlin of 1943.
Loved the half-Jewish Nazis next door, the pregnant Frau Obersturmfuhrer and her lesbian sister, Carin. In fact, Carin was one of the best-realized characters in the book. She was both sarcastic and warm, wise-cracking and deep, funny and sad. I'm usually quite critical of male authors' depictions of lesbian women, so this characterization was a treat. There were few other minor characters as well imagined: Frau Weiss and her children were somewhat believable (though idealized), but all the other U-boats were complete stereotypes, as were the building superintendent & wife, other residents, Sigrid's boss, etc., bellicose Nazis right down to their grey teeth.
I was disappointed that Sigrid's mother-in-law was so entirely one-dimensional. It made her completely predictable. I hoped that the evolving circumstances of the novel would somehow impact her witless bitchiness and relentless pro-Nazi attitudes, but the author missed the opportunity to develop this character at all. No matter that her son was essentially destroyed by his part in the war, even confronted with that and his suicidal return to the Eastern front ... nope, sorry, she was the same at the end of the book as at the beginning. There's no way I can buy that an unemployed nosy woman at home in the Berlin apartment day and night could *miss* Sigrid's activities completely. She found Sigrid's love letters, after all, so we know she was prying. But her occasional suspicions essentially are couched in her dislike of Sigrid rather than any apprehension of her anti-Nazi activism.
In many ways, I found Caspar, Sigrid's soldier husband, the most coherent character in the book. He was an earnest civil servant kind of guy who is drafted, is completely unfit as a soldier but does his best with a bad situation. His identity and character are destroyed by the chaotic violence of the Eastern front. After being wounded, Caspar tries to return to his life, realizes the impossibility of that, and returns to die. He was exceedingly well-drawn and sadly, all too comprehensible.
Sigrid herself was difficult to understand and identify with. At first, in the turmoil of living in war-torn Berlin, she is consumed with thoughts of her love affair with Egon and focuses on memories of her emotional/sexual tie with him to remove her from her brutal day-to-day existence. I could imagine such thoughts as a good escape valve. However, as the book goes on, I often felt that I didn't know her or understand her motivations, even though we read her first-person account. I was left feeling that, while Sigrid tells us her *actions,* she never really thinks very much, aside from obsessive musing on her sexual encounters with men. For example, Sigrid never says to herself -- Egon is a good and upright person who doesn't deserve the treatment that he receives from the Nazi government -- I believe this to the extent that I will endanger myself to save unfairly targeted Jews. Or -- my beloved nurse was a Jew... Or -- my best friend in elementary school was a Jew... Her motivation for endangering herself is unclear and unconvincing (although we are probably supposed to extrapolate it from the relationship with Egon).
I'm sorry, Mr. Gillham, almost every woman that I know obsesses on her relationship with her beloved one and its meaning, NOT on her sex acts with that person. I still would have given this book 5 stars, despite all the titillating sex scenes, except for ... (view spoiler)[ the rape. When Egon rapes Sigrid out of rage, shoving her against a wall and telling her to "Take. This. Back to her marital bed..." I almost closed the book. This, in my view, is where the author really failed to comprehend his main character, as a woman. Being violently raped by a loved one is the ultimate betrayal -- in which you as a person are reduced to a receptacle for another's rage -- well, it would be something that, at the VERY LEAST, Sigrid would dwell on for the remainder of the book and it would certainly color, perhaps destroy, her love for Egon. Instead, Sigrid relates the incident matter-of-factly and continues to worship Egon, scan the streets for a glimpse of him, review their other sexual encounters, etc., etc., etc. (hide spoiler)] Without this incident, I thought the complexity of Egon's character was well-depicted, as a targeted minority pushed to the wall to try and survive, as a man deeply injured by grief, loss, and societal wrongs.
With other reviewers, I failed to understand the meaning of Sigrid's affair with Wolfram, the war-injured brother of her neighbors. If I were cynical, I'd say it was an opportunity for many more sexy bodice-ripping scenes in sleazy hotels. It's hard to believe that we're supposed to imagine that Sigrid was planning for the denouement, way back in that relatively early section of the book -- when she'd barely become involved with the anti-Nazi underground. I suppose we're intended to think that Wolfram is a consolation prize, since Egon is unavailable. I don't know (as a lesbian) if heterosexual women are usually enticed by strangers presenting their hard-ons to them in stairwells, but I find it hard to believe that they are.
What I think that the author was probably attempting to do was to debunk the common stereotypes of virgin/whore and depict Sigrid as a passionate woman who doesn't shrink from seeking solace in her sexual relationships with men. It was a good attempt and Sigrid was a woman who did develop a sense of her own authority and acted on it in the climactic final scenes -- fast-paced and suspenseful -- her actions were believable and admirable. It's just her inner life and emotions that didn't persuade.
Oh, yeah, minor but distracting point: Gillham thanks his editor in the acknowledgments -- and she really did NOT deserve the praise. There were half-a-dozen or more lapses of continuity and flat-out mistakes in the book that were so glaring that I started keeping track. At one point, Sigrid finds a dirty playing card that depicts someone she knows -- later on, it's termed a "postcard" -- very different. Just one of too many such errors. Glad you liked your editor, Mr. Gillham, but in future, I'd find someone with actual skills so that you don't torment your readers to this extent again!
Not as good as the previous two, I am sad to report.
First, I was put off by the stereotypes of the Native police officers. In fact, all the Native pe...moreNot as good as the previous two, I am sad to report.
First, I was put off by the stereotypes of the Native police officers. In fact, all the Native people in the book come off as toadying, stupid or evil. That was disappointing. I'd like to have found that the caring characterization that has been lavished on the development of the white characters would have been carried over to the minority characters.
Second, much of the information about bees and anaphalaxis was just wrong. The author used "bee" and "wasp" interchangeably -- a pet peeve. (They're different, people!) Lack of research is not ALWAYS a deal breaker for me, but on this subject, it comes close. FWIW, bees don't fly or sting at night. Later on, one of the pathologists cleared up some of the confusion about anaphalaxis & stinging insects, but by then I was too pissed off.
The broken English as spoken by the Russian characters grew quite tiresome. Does the author know any Russians? I happened to be an ESL tutor for Russian immigrants for a number of years, and I don't think s/he captured their speech variations well.
There's something stilted in Wolfe's writing style in all the books. It feels like crucial prepositions or segues get left out. I think Wolfe should have someone read the chapters aloud so that these jangling sections are corrected before it goes to press. Sometimes I have to read a passed 2-3 times to get the sense of it.
All that said, I do like Hazel and her mother, and the Canadian setting. Love James Wingate and found it very touching that as he believed his life was ending, his last thoughts were of David, his deceased partner. Poignant.
Wolfe is worth reading -- and I'll probably go on to read the next one. (less)