In his debut about 1943 Berlin, Gillham uses elements common to the many previous movies and books about World War II—from vicious Nazis to black marketeers to Jewish children hiding in attics to beautiful blond German women hiding their sexuality inside drab coats—yet manages to make the story fresh.
The blond beauty is Sigrid, a stenographer living alone with her unpleasant mother-in-law while her husband, Kaspar, serves on the eastern front. Sigrid’s Berlin is a grim city full of suspicious, fearful citizens barely coping with shortages and almost nightly air raids, people not above turning each other over to the Gestapo for unpatriotic behavior. But Sigrid is mostly consumed in pining not for Kaspar but for Egon, the Jewish black markeeter with whom she carried on a passionate affair before he went into hiding. At first, Sigrid resists when Ericha, a rebellious teenager living in her building, involves her in an underground network hiding Jews, but iconoclast Sigrid soon finds that her experience as Egon’s occasional “bagman” serves her well as she delivers supplies and humans to a safe house. At the same time, she befriends new neighbors, two sisters and their wounded-officer brother, Wolfram, whose impeccable German credentials are not what they seem. Sigrid finds herself wondering if a particular Jewish woman with two daughters in hiding might be Egon’s wife. But when Egon reappears in her life, she doesn’t bring up her suspicions. Instead she hides him in her neighbors’ apartment, an awkward situation given that she has recently begun what she considers a purely sexual affair with Wolfram. The wounded and embittered Kaspar’s return only complicates the situation. With her underground activities as intricate as her love life, Sigrid can trust no one, yet must trust a dangerously wider circle of acquaintances until the hold-your-breath suspense ending.World War II Germany may be familiar ground, but Gillham's novel—vividly cinematic yet subtle and full of moral ambiguity, not to mention riveting characters—is as impossible to put down as it is to forget.