Bleak stuff under total control, Stephanie Johnson

The Wish Child
Catherine Chidgey
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
IBSN 9781776560622

When Dutch writer Herman Koch visited New Zealand as part of the 2016 Auckland Writers’ Festival, he expressed his belief that WWII was losing its allure as a subject for European writers. It seems that the war has been examined from every angle and every dark corner exposed to the light. There was, he thought, nothing more to say. He did not offer an opinion on whether the subject is exhausted for writers in this part of the world.

I thought of Koch once or twice as I read The Wish Child. I also thought of Canadian writer Anne-Marie Macdonald, who, like Catherine Chidgey, had a 10-year gap between two startlingly good books. The slow-cooking decade since The Transformation, Chidgey’s third novel and this, her fourth, results in sentences polished till they sing, in rich, unhurried storytelling and intimate understanding of period and characters: proof of the writer’s total control of her material.

The novel is set in Berlin, mostly concentrated during WWII, but with short sections in the decades after. So omniscient is Chidgey’s understanding of this period that, if she were not already well-known as a contemporary New Zealand writer, readers could easily assume she was a German of the war generation. This is the ultimate demonstration of her powers.

The distant narrator of the tale is a mysterious identity. Chidgey keeps us guessing as to who he could possibly be until the last quarter of the novel. It’s a clever deceit, and one that she uses very lightly. Disembodied spirits in possession of the secrets of the living can be tiresomely judgemental or pre-emptive. This child-like spirit is neither, floating between central characters Sieglinde Heilmann and Erich Kroning, keeping them company in their individual lives until they collide in the cataclysm of the fall of Berlin in 1945, and separate again. Some of the most poetic passages of the novel – and there are many – are those spoken directly by this otherworldly presence.

I once made a resolution that I would never again read a book on the Holocaust. It is a subject that has endlessly tortured those of us born in the first decades after the war and, like many other readers, I suspect, I had read my nightmarish fill. The Wish Child shows, in a very human grass-roots way, not only how the barbaric eugenic ideal came about, but how, once it was abroad, ordinary Germans embraced it. Chidgey shows just how cruel that idea of perfection is and offers a valuable addition to that overflowing global library.

Historian Anthony Beevor’s Berlin: The Downfall 1945 is a kind of non-fiction companion piece to Chidgey’s novel, and one of the books that she lists in her acknowledgements. Images that persist after reading Beevor’s 2002 history are re-visited here: the vicious, indiscriminate rape of civilians by the advancing Russian army; the threading, elbow-high, of wristwatches stolen from German corpses; the pillaging and further destruction of an already ruined city.

Bleak stuff, but Chidgey has a sly, irrepressible sense of humour and eye for the ridiculous. Her literary style enables her to break from prose to script-style, perhaps half a dozen times throughout the book, to give us a dialogue exchange between Frau Müller and Frau Miller, two everywomen trying to make sense of food and soap shortages, or their overwhelming sexualised love of the Führer, or their fear of making statements open to misinterpretation that could result in being carted off to the camps, or shot. More surprising humour is found in the regular children’s visits to factories. One visit is to a biscuit factory, where Frau Miller gives the children a guided tour. She tells them how the Führer enjoys a biscuit with his cup of tea, and how each year he receives from the factory a one-kilo assortment which “he finds most fortifying, and how in this way our biscuits are helping in the war against the English, who have never produced a biscuit of note.”

At the outset of the war, Erich is four and Sieglinde is six. The children’s stories are woven together in alternate chapters, one growing up on a farm near Leipzig and the other in Berlin. Both are loved, although Erich, for reasons he doesn’t understand, does not enjoy being loved by his troubled mother. The farm and farmhouse are idyllic: there are forests and fields and nourishing food – until Chidgey gives us the copy of Mein Kampf on the bookshelf and Frau Kroning’s fervent creation of a quilt made of interlocking swastikas. Motherhood has helped her take Nazism to her heart.

In Berlin, Sieglinde has two brothers and devoted parents. Her father entertains the children with his skilful creations of silhouettes cut from paper – animals, people and castles. There are relatives and a close, although disintegrating, community.

As the war bleeds into the 1940s, Erich’s father goes away to fight, leaving him with his increasingly chilly and desperate mother; Sieglinde’s father employs his scissor-skills in a government department, cutting dangerous words from letters and documents, some of the words falling accidentally into the cuffs of his trousers, where his daughter later finds them to treasure.

Books for adults with child characters offer the writer particular challenges – they cannot offer readers satisfaction if they concern themselves only with childish things, or sag into banal sentimentality. Chidgey, with the help of her all-seeing spirit character, avoids any of those pitfalls. Instead, she lifts us into a war-torn adult world which is made more poignant and affecting by the responses and travails of innocent Erich and Sieglinde.

The closing chapters of The Wish Child are brave, terrifying and tragic. Perhaps, when Koch talked about European writers no longer approaching the war, he meant that they have lost their stomach for it. Talent, time and distance, perhaps, help Chidgey face it head-on. Sieglinde’s experience during the fall of Berlin and the truth of Erich’s origins are heartbreaking, and told in the same clear, lucid voice employed throughout. Vivid, informed and profound, The Wish Child is a stunning achievement.

Stephanie Johnson is a writer and critic. Her most recent novel is The Writers’ Festival, which was reviewed in our summer 2015 issue, available in our online archive.

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