The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press, 2016), 383pp, $30
At first glance, realising this was another book about Hitler’s Germany, I railed: why not Rwanda, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Srebrenica, or Syria even? I felt there could be nothing new to write and, as a baby boomer with a father who fought in the Second World War, I’d done my dash with reading about it all. I was wary of a Boy in Striped Pyjamas-style novel, a book I found oddly compelling but also disturbing because I felt manipulated. I’d devoured The Reader and adored Bernhard Schlink when he attended Wellington Writers and Readers some years back. So, did I need to read yet another book on this topic? Well, yes it seems I did, as I was offered The Wish Child to review.
The novel opens in ‘1995 near Nuremberg’ with Sieglinde Heilmann ‘shuffling and turning the pieces of paper, releasing the scent of old typewriter ribbons and pencil sharpenings …’ She is painstakingly reconstructing shredded documents from the last days of the GDR in East Berlin. I was immediately gripped as I had visited the Stasi Museum in Potsdam, East Germany, back in 2002 and witnessed evidence of the hasty shredding of documents, and heard about the teams of people working on this project
In this age of endless distractions with Facebook, Twitter and blogging, I have found my ability to concentrate, focus and truly enjoy novels, challenged. It takes good writing to sustain my interest for very long and I hate tricky plots or anything that reeks of pretention. This novel more than sustained me. I read it twice. The first time I had some reservations about the fable-like tone and the voice of an unknown all-knowing narrator and, to some extent, what seemed like clichés at times – the relentless portrayal of order and control in the lives of the characters from two families, the Heilmanns and the Krönings – for this is Hitler’s Germany and we are regaled with detail of the detail but accumulatively, and ultimately to clever purpose.
The Heilmanns are from Berlin and the Krönings from ‘near Leipzig’. The key protagonists are Erich Kröning and Sieglinde, aged five and six when war breaks out. Erich’s father goes to fight in Russia and Sieglinde’s father has a top-secret job in Berlin removing illicit words from documents. We are with both families as war is declared and they try to conduct their lives in the new circumstances. The all-knowing narrator takes us back and forth between the families, as we inhabit their day-to-day, almost-ordinary lives. And yet the seemingly benign is also very sinister.
Chidgey mostly avoids the blood and guts of war; instead, through the almost-ordinary and sometimes seemingly insignificant, she develops the creeping horror of it all. Erich’s village in Leipzig must choose which of their beloved church bells to relinquish to the State for the war effort. Only one lone voice resists, wanting them to hide the bells, and instead the community argues over which bells are best to keep – and in the end, they are all confiscated. Then there is the moment when Sieglinde’s mother takes her children to an auction to buy a samovar. For years she has secretly coveted her sister-in-law’s samovar and now here is her chance to own one. We read about the chandeliers, carpets and spice racks being auctioned, all seemingly benign but of course, the auction items are the untold story. By avoiding the overt, the benign becomes potent. The devil is in the detail for sure in this novel.
The writing is beautiful and atmospheric at times. I was interested in how the absorbing, even if at times annoying, tone of the narrator, combined with the minutiae of the characters’ day to day activities, created an almost cinematic experience, drawing me as the reader right into their here and now, even as I tried to resist.
Although I felt at a distance from the characters on my first reading and too annoyed by the strange narrator, the detail just kept drawing me inwards and onwards. Chidgey’s writing is full of beautiful imagery: ‘the strands of her braids were as thick as thumbs’, and describing Sieglinde’s father at his typewriter, ‘The green carapace unclicks, the blank paper and the carbon paper twist into the machine and the letters raise their inky arms.’ There’s a musicality too, with haunting lines like this: ‘You, you, you, the turtle dove called from the forest, you, you, you’; it’s a recurring motif that makes more sense on a second reading. It could be pretentious but it isn’t.
It is a dark story but full of light too, a spotlight on how people can turn a blind eye. In this current climate of a new US president (and I hesitate to bring politics to a book review), this novel sure resonates for me. There is dark humour in the form of Frau Müller and Frau Miller who throughout the novel have comic cameo appearances with telling conversations. These women compete to be seen as obedient and compliant to the Hitler regime. An example of one of their conversations is their discussion about soap:
‘I don’t feel clean. No soap until next week, and I need to wash my hair. You know how thick it is, you can see how much hair I possess. I am fortunate to have my mother’s hair, many people admire it’.
Frau Müller scores:
‘You know, Frau Miller, I have heard that when a woman makes herself look nice, it is often because she takes a secret pleasure in annoying another of her sex.’
These conversations grow darker yet still humorous, and ultimately Frau Miller and Müller are caricatures in the best sense, representing the fear and oppression both during the days of Hitler and latterly in East Germany.
The Krönings keep bees, and Erich, a solitary child, spends a lot of time on his own engaging with nature. The bees become allegorical. Foreign workers are sent to help Erich’s mother when his father goes off to war. One of the young girls is terrified of being stung. Erich’s mother explains, ‘Well it’s true they can attack if they feel threatened, and it’s true they are wild creatures and cannot think the way that you and I can think. But it’s also true that we can train them to do as we wish. We can correct nature – stop up a stream to alter its flow. Yes?’ The bees and the foreign workers speak a language that Erich thinks he recognises.
There are times when the characters appear constructs in a morality tale, preventing them from seeming to be vital, breathing, bleeding people. I wanted to know more of what they thought and how they felt, but we truly only access them through the overarching narrator. Yet the writing held me in its grip, and the meeting of Erich and Sieglinde at the end of the war in Berlin as the Russians are arriving is compelling and one of the finest denouements, unexpected, awful, and beautifully written. On a second reading, with more knowledge of the narrator, I was much more fully engaged with the characters and full of admiration for the structure of the novel.
As the bombs impact increasingly on Berlin towards the end of the war, Chidgey quotes from a real document that she has translated …
We are Germans!
There are two possibilities:
Either we are good Germans or we are bad ones.
If we are good Germans, then all is well. But if we are bad Germans, …
It could be considered a cheek, that such insight into the ordinary lives of two fictitious German families living through Hitler’s reign of terror, and how the awful became acceptable, inch by inch and unquestioningly, is so convincingly told – by a Kiwi author who happens to live in Ngaruawahia … albeit one who has a degree in German literature and has lived in Germany. Such is the wonder of fiction. Perhaps because the author is an ‘outsider’ she comes with fresh eyes to a much-told story. Interestingly, as I finished writing this review, I read online a Guardian piece about the death of Joseph Goebbels’s secretary, Brunhilde Pomsel, aged 105 and still insisting, although she worked for his propaganda centre, that she really knew nothing of what was happening. The characters in this novel tend to lend credibility to this idea.
I have no doubt that Catherine Chidgey’s novel is a very important contribution to literature about this particular period in history, and I feel certain it will stand the test of time.
MAGGIE RAINEY-SMITH is a novelist, poet, short-story writer, essayist and book reviewer. She teaches Workplace English to migrants and refugees. Her latest novel, Daughters of Messene, explores a New Zealand-born daughter’s Greek immigrant heritage, together with her mother’s story during the Greek Civil War.