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The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey - reviewed by Stevan McCallum

Stevan McCallum’s review of The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey, who will be appearing at the International Festival of Authors Parry Sound on 26 Ocotber 2017.

I have a confession to make: I rolled my eyes in the first few pages of Catherine Chidgey’s new novel “The Wish Child”. I will compound my confession by admitting that when any story declares, in its opening pages, the setting will be some approximation of “July 1939 near Leipzig, Germany”, as is the case here, I assume I know where the story is heading. Fortunately for cynical readers like myself, Chidgey takes us somewhere else.

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While she plants the story firmly around Berlin of the Second World War, the events are anything but tropes of historical fiction set in the era. One of Chidgey's remarkable achievements (and I find this one of the oddest statements I have ever considered writing) is establishing a nostalgia for Berlin of the early 1940’s. Now before jumping to any conclusions, I’m not suggesting her intention is to conjure a fondness for the Führer, or the rise of the Third Reich. This sort of nostalgia, evoked by modern Right-wing demagogues in our media, is something else entirely. No, instead, she recreates the lives of ordinary citizens, proud of nothing more than their unextraordinary, bourgeois lives. At points, Chidgey can almost make a reader feel sympathy for the sacrifices these ordinary Berliners made to support the war effort. Almost.

And this ‘almost’ is part of the power of her novel. The characters’ willful state of ignorance to what is going on in their country is slowly exposed. To themselves. The reader knows what’s going on and what will go on, but the characters must force themselves to the conclusion. Characters work hard to convince themselves of their moral indifference. Brigette, for example, has a desire to impress her sister-in-law with a Russian tea-urn more elegant than the one Hannelore owns. When the opportunity presents itself, we witness her process of denial: “There was something distasteful to Brigitte about buying used wares – you never could be sure exactly who had used them – but lately there had been more and more sale notices in the newspaper, and one in particular caught her eye. ‘General household effects: clocks, silverware, table lamps, costume jewellery, antique samovar, gas stove, typewriter, etc.’ She lingered over the word ‘antique’. Antiques were not the same as used goods; they were pieces of history, and one had a duty to preserve them”.

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The other outstanding part of Chidgey’s novel is the narrator: a sometimes-intrusive-observer who never quite participates in the events of the story. The voice is young--the wish child of the title--and a child’s voice is critical to relay in the absurd events that will unfold in Germany in the decades around the War. Our young narrator, though, is anything but naive. When judgement or commentary comes, it is biting and harsh. In one surreal moment, Brigette notices her living room getting larger while a Jewish neighbour has noticed her living room is literally shrinking (Get it? Their LIVING rooms). But when confronted, Bridgette denies it to her “and if Frau Loewenthal asked her again she would deny it again, because it would be too late to say anything different. And yes: she knew that if she had more room somebody else had to have less; yet, she had not moved the wall herself, and perhaps somebody else would speak up about the shifting wall. Yes, surely somebody would say something, someone else would raise the matter, but until then there was nothing to be done. She had tried, hadn’t she?”

Don’t be turned-off by a shifting wall in a Berlin apartment, though. It is far more believable than the bride standing to marry her fiancé in the presence of his parents since his “absence had not prevented the marriage plans, neither would his death: thanks to the Führer, German women could marry dead men, provided those dead men were also German and of clean blood.”

Since I began with a confession, I’ll need to ask for further forgiveness: there is too much to account for in a review of this size. I haven’t spoken of the bees, the poems salvaged, the words.  The words! The sinister beauty of removing words! As I admitted earlier, Chidgey takes us somewhere unexpected in “The Wish Child”.

Catherine Chidgey will read from The Wish Child at the Charles W. Stockey Centre on Thursday 26 October at 7:30 pm, along with Kathleen Winter and Bianca Marais, an evening presented by the International Festival of authors Parry Sound.

 

 

 

 

HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS by Bianca Marais

HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS by Bianca Marais

South Africa 1976. Robin Conrad is the 9-year-old daughter of Jolene and Keith. They are white South Africans. Keith works for a gold mining company, and the family lives in a Johannesburg suburb with other descendants of British and European settlers. The other important person in Robin’s life is the family’s black maid, Mabel.

Beauty Mbali is an educated black woman, a teacher, a widow. Her daughter, Nomsa, came to Johannesburg to continue her education. We meet Beauty as she comes to Johannesburg in search of her daughter who has become involved in student politics, much to her mother’s dismay.

Very early in the novel, on the evening of the 16th of June 1976, Robin’s parents, who had gone out to a party, promising to return, are murdered. In the next few days, Jolene’s sister arrives to care for Robin, and Mabel chooses to return to her own family. Robin has lost everyone she loved and is removed from her home, and school, to live with Edith in Johannesburg.

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Bianca Marais writes well about grief, as both Robin and Edith look for distraction to avoid coping with their overwhelming grief. It is at the funeral that Edith advises Robin to “hum if you don’t know the words”. And, I thought that was also good advice for life in general – hum, or just make it up as you go along, because it will go along, in whatever direction it takes, whether we know the words or not.

Edith finds it very difficult, though she loved Robin, to sacrifice her own independent life to care for her niece. When, by chance, Beauty comes into their lives, needing a job, it seems the perfect solution for everyone.

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Hum If You Don’t Know the Words is a novel rich in character and story. The time in which it is set is one of turmoil and readers will ask themselves unanswerable questions about the difference between freedom fighters and terrorists. There are moments when some of the situations in which Robin finds herself required me to suspend my disbelief, but I found myself caring quite desperately about the welfare of this child.  

The novel begins only a few days before the Soweto Student Uprising on 16 June 1976. Some see this event as the beginning of the end of Apartheid, and since 1995 the 16th of June is known as Youth Day. It was also the beginning of a massive exodus of white South Africans, many of whom made their way to Canada.

Bianca Marais will read from Hum If You Don’t Know the Words at the Charles W. Stockey Centre on Thursday 26 October at 7:30 pm, along with Kathleen Winter and Catherine Chidgey, an evening presented by the International Festival of authors Parry Sound.

Lost in September by Kathleen Winter

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Once again, summer has come to an end, fall is upon us, and The International Festival of Authors heads north from the Toronto harbour front to Georgian Bay’s Big Sound and the Charles W. Stockey Centre in Parry Sound. On the evening of Thursday 26 October we will welcome to the stage Catherine Chidgey from New Zealand, Bianca Marais from South Africa, and Canadian Kathleen Winter.

When I attended public school and high school half a century ago we learned in our Canadian History class that Wolfe defeated Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham and therefore England conquered France.

So, if you were General James Wolfe – if you had not died on the Plains of Abraham but had lived – you would be understandably confused if you walked the streets of Montreal today and saw no evidence of the English language.

Kathleen Winter must have wondered the same thing as she wandered around the city where she now lives. In her new novel Lost in September Kathleen Winter imagines James Wolfe in the present day, as he explores the city of Montreal. In fact, he is living in a tent on the slope of Mount Royal but ventures downtown to the gym for a bath. He also re-visits the Plains of Abraham and the approaches where he planned his attack, as he struggles to understand what he once experienced as a soldier, and what the future might now hold for him. All of this seems to be perfectly understandable, if completely absurd.

James Wolfe wrote letters to his family, especially his mother, during the years he was away from home as a soldier. His letters are indeed housed now at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library as the novel indicates. Mother and son were extremely close, perhaps rather too much so, as you will discover. Kathleen Winter has obviously mined these letters for her novel and they are indeed extraordinary, and fascinating to read.

The same river flows through Montreal today as it did in Wolfe’s day. The landscape is also much the same, if you can imagine it without the highways and cities of both sides of this great waterway. And Montmorency Falls looks much the same as it did in 1759, only a few kilometres from Quebec City, a protected landscape where the river drops down a steep cliff to the great Saint Lawrence River. It is easy to imagine both General James Wolfe and Commander Louis-Joseph de Montcalm in this place.

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Lost in September chronicles the 11 lost days prior to the battle on the Plains of Abraham on 13 September 1759. Both Wolfe and Montcalm succumbed to their injuries. Obviously neither lived to explore Montreal or Quebec except in the imagination of a very talented writer. You will both laugh and cry as you read about the exploits and confusion of poor James Wolfe. He is at once insightful and blind, as is his friend Harold, who “looks at everyone as they were once a baby”.

James Wolfe was only 32 years old when he died, a young man, as many soldiers are, and many live no longer than did Wolfe. This novel imagines the days lost to history in the life of James Wolfe, as it also explores the same days in the present time in the life of a modern day soldier.

Best known for her novel Annabel, Kathleen Winter presents another brilliant novel that is sure to become a “must read” in the coming year.

Kathleen Winter will be in Parry Sound with The International Festival of Authors on Thursday 26 October when she will read from Lost in September. A date not to be missed!

Breaking News - Lost in September has been nominated for the 2017 Governor General's Award for Fiction! Congratulations Kathleen!

 

 

 

First Snow, Last Light by Wayne Johnston

 

A new novel by Wayne Johnston is always a cause for celebration, and his most recent, First Snow, Last Light is as satisfying as all of those that came before.

The novel begins with a child returning home from school as usual, it is late afternoon, late November. His mother was always at the window, watching and waiting for the child, but today she is not and the house is in darkness.

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The story is told in turn by the child, Ned, and by Sheilagh Fielding who we’ve met before in earlier novels. The past is revealed as time moves forward from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Edgar Vatcher, born and bred in Newfoundland, and his British born wife, Megan, are Ned’s parents. Their marriage is strained, but both adore and cherish their son. No one really believes they would willingly have chosen to abandon young Ned. There is an extensive search, but with no success in finding the Vatchers, or even any clue to the reason for their disappearance. Ned will forever be obsessed with the disappearance of his parents, and will never cease searching for them.

From the first page I found myself completely immersed in this tale of an abandoned child, his parents, and his extended family. There is also the local priest, Duggan, who cares for Ned for the rest of his life. Sheilagh Fielding is a seemingly hard-nosed journalist with a reputation for drink and disorder. Sheilagh, who was Edgar’s friend first, is another who will always care for Ned.

The Vatcher family includes Ned’s grandparents, Nan and Reg, and Ned’s Uncles, some living and one dead, who are ever present. The Vatchers live on the Heights – the “wrong side of the tracks” – or harbour from the city of St. John’s. Edgar was the son who left all that and by the time he was a young man he owned a grand house in a nice neighbourhood in St. John’s. Though, by the time of his disappearance Edgar was struggling with scandal and financial problems. There was some speculation that this was the reason for his disappearance – but that would Megan abandon her child seemed impossible to everyone.

This is a novel full of the sort of characters only Dickens – or a Newfoundlander – could create. Not only Ned, the abandoned child, but his grandfather who has not spoken for many years, choosing to remain mute, though his wife berates him at every turn. There is another child, orphaned at birth and adopted into the Vatcher family, a child with his own myriad of problems.  There is such a richness of story and language as the tale is told.

Ned becomes more and more obsessed and eccentric in middle age. He may be a self made man who has acquired wealth and prestige but he is still a lost and abandoned child.

The dramatic conclusion cannot be guessed – as all is discovered and resolved and this chapter of the life of Ned Vatcher and Sheilagh Fielding comes to an end.

After reading First Snow, Last Light what I’d love to do most is retire to Newfoundland and read again all of Wayne Johnston’s earlier books. 

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

I think of Anita Brookner, Penelope Lively and Jane Gardam as some of the best writers of their generation, and of Helen Dunmore as one who followed in their footsteps. Their books are superior in every way, always intelligent and insightful and delicious to read.

I was shocked to learn only three months ago that Helen Dunmore died, just before the publication of her last novel, Birdcage Walk.   

Helen Dunmore wrote, and had published, poetry and short stories before her first novel for adults, Zennor in Darkness was published in 1993. Set during the First World War, and imagining the lives of D H Lawrence and his German born wife, Frieda, who were living at that time in Cornwall.

Her novel Spell of Winter, published in 1996, won the inaugural Orange Prize for Fiction. Other novels for adults and children followed, often garnering nominations for prestigious awards.

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Birdcage Walk tells the story of a young couple in the days just prior to, and during, the French Revolution. We know them as Diner and Lizzie, a young couple very much in love and optimistic about the future – at least on the surface. He is a builder, a speculator, designing and building grand terraced homes high above the shore of the River Severn near Bristol. Lizzie is the daughter of Julia Fawkes, a woman who writes about equality and the rights of women and the poor – radical stuff at the time. Julia’s husband, Augustus, is even more radical in his very public support for those attempting to overthrow the monarchy in France. Lizzie’s husband will have none of it, and bitterly resents Lizzie’s attachment to her family, and the political and social unrest they are part of.

The novel follow Lizzie through her days, and nights, as her husband becomes more and more unpredictable and their lives together more precarious. Diner has a past that is alluded to at the beginning of the novel, and is slowly revealed as the story progresses.

And that is all I am giving away! Birdcage Walk is an intriguing and compelling novel. The setting is fascinating, the story is both suspenseful and satisfying, the writing is sublime – a great book by a writer who gave us so much, and should have given us more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

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