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.
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”.
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.