David Gillham's buzzed-about book City of Women is a novel that toys with your expectations and spits them back at you. The charming lover has a secret, or two, or seven. The menacing next-door neighbors have their reasons. A hero one day might be a Judas the next.
Gillham, left, takes an old trope, that no one is what they seem, and turns it on its head in a dizzying array of character swerves in the bleak climate of 1943 Berlin. No one is what they appear to be, the book tells you, and even what they appear to be can change by the minute.
The propaganda runs hot in Gillham's World War II-era Berlin, but the city is stuck in a perpetual gloomy cold caused by shortages, vile chemical substitutes for scarce foodstuffs and the constant small betrayals of a country that doesn't yet know that life is about to get so much worse.
The heroine of City of Women (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, $25.95) is Sigrid, a lonely clerk living with her shrewish mother-in-law while her husband is at the Russian front.
A 1979 Transylvania University graduate who now lives in Massachusetts, Gillham, 55, said Sigrid has forerunners in the characters of Sophie in William Styron's Sophie's Choice and Emma Bovary in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary — women who long for rich and sensual lives in the midst of harsh and occasionally horrifying circumstances.
Sigrid starts out seeking sexual excitement in a movie theater, where she meets her lover, an elegant Jew named Egon, and promptly gets involved in the city's underworld of smuggled goods, smuggled people and lives that turn on the slightest quirks of time and circumstance. Childless and scorned by her nasty mother-in-law and her chilly husband, Sigrid settles into a mother-daughter relationship with the rebellious Ericha, a nanny who works with the Jewish underground.
While Sigrid seems to take to life on shaky moral terms, a final twist in the novel's last few pages shows she is more fatalistic — and perhaps smarter and more principled — than the reader realized.
As a teen from Northern Kentucky, Gillham came to be a political science major at Transylvania in Lexington and lists as his favorite classes two taught by Don Dugi, who is still at the university: American national government, and ancient and medieval political theory. But Gillham's heart was really in the theater.
"I just loved plays at Transylvania," he says.
He later studied screen writing but then turned to fiction. Gillham has worked in retail and wholesale bookselling. He also wrote several unpublished novels for which he said he retains some affection, although he now understands why they weren't published.
City of Women, to be released Tuesday, is not as over-the-top in its character turns as this summer's sensation, Gone Girl — in which the characters have a brittle sheen of brilliant people blinded by their own capacity for heedless behavior — but it is nonetheless a wild ride for the reader.
Gillham said that while City of Women's characters sometimes seem to want to go their own way, "in the end, I am the person doing the typing, so I can allow characters to do one thing, or not permit them. ... I give them their head whenever I can."
Still, he said, the way the action unfolded "sometimes surprised" him.
"I did not start the book with the idea that some of the characters would turn the way they did," Gillham said. "Egon, to some degree, and certainly even Ericha as well, that was not what I expected when I first started. I liked exploring that sort of moral gray ground, so that nobody is exactly heroic and nobody is completely a villain."
He is working on another novel, this one set in both post-war Amsterdam and New York City in the 1950s.
"The first 100 pages of a novel for me, at any rate, always go very quickly," Gillham said. "Then I have to start thinking about exactly where it's going."