The return of Catherine Chidgey has been greeted as a literary event, but her fruity, humourless prose fails to impress Jane Westaway.
From time to time a reviewer strikes a novel whose external circumstances threaten to disrupt the intimate relationship between the reader and the fiction. The Wish Child – Catherine Chidgey’s first novel in 13 years – is one such.
And that’s Circumstance Number 1. In 1998 Chidgey made what was widely acclaimed as a glittering debut with In a Fishbone Church. The fruit of her MA in Creative Writing, this won best first book at the New Zealand Book Awards. Two more novels followed, then … nothing. In the intervening years, Chidgey garnered more glitter in the form of awards and fellowships. But the silence continued. So what eventually emerged was always going to be greeted with a fanfare.
Circumstance 2 – and an inevitable concomitant of 1 – is publicity that traverses not just the novel itself but the process of its creation and its part in the author’s private life. Chidgey clearly spent her silent years working hard, but she was also, she has said, longing for a child. She told one interviewer that this longing haunts the novel. The arrival of both baby and book in quick succession makes good copy, and can’t fail to pique the curiosity of potential readers.
Circumstance 3 – and now we draw nearer to the novel itself – is that it’s set in Berlin in World War II. It is, so the blurb tells us, “a profound meditation on the wreckage caused by a corrupt ideology, on the resilience of the human spirit, and on crimes that cannot be undone”. In other words, it’s important. There are further clues to this importance: the hard cover; an epigraph taken from Goethe’s Faust; the way each section begins with lines of poetry that have words and phrases blanked out, as if by a censor; and the fact that the text is, in the author’s words, “threaded through” with quotes from German songs and poems, and the words of Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and others whose names prompt an involuntary shudder.
But putting all that aside, I’d like to say, we come to the novel itself. Yet I find I can’t say it. Because Circumstance 3 – for this reader, anyway – clouded and almost obscured the fiction itself.
Coincidentally, and perhaps unfortunately, I came to The Wish Child from Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Will be Forgiven. This too deals with World War II, albeit from the British point of view. Cleave is a writer of such flair that at first I feared he would dodge what mattered by continually setting off prose fireworks. But he didn’t. His characters smoke and drink and fall in love. They go to the front, suffer and survive (or not). They stay home and suffer, collecting body parts from bombed buildings and themselves being injured. They live, and – in spite of the horror – they laugh.
The Wish Child stands in stark contrast to this. No one laughs. Cleave wants to show us the effect of big events on his characters’ lives and personalities. Chidgey wants to tell us how wrong and terrible these events were. Nazi ideology was, of course, as wrong as wrong could be, and – as Hannah Arendt and Chidgey herself show us – evil too often arises from a willingness to let others tell us where our duty lies. But being right doesn’t make fiction live.
Chidgey’s story is told by a mysterious narrator – mysterious, that is, for those who don’t sooner or later (in my case, sooner) turn to the note at the back. The author has chosen not to reveal the narrator’s identity until the end, so no reviewer worth their salt would either. Once you do know who it is, you can appreciate the grip they must have had on her imagination. But I’m unconvinced that withholding this particular piece of information enhances the novel.
The narrator sees into the hearts and minds of characters, and regularly speaks over their shoulders to us in mysterious and poetic terms. Here’s a sense of it, taken at random: the grandmother of one of the main characters, a boy called Erich, has just told him about a living child being set into the foundations of a Saxony castle. Erich’s mother reproaches her, and the grandmother counters by saying, “‘I’m sure you loved hearing it when you were little. Didn’t your mama tell it to you?’ … Emilie does not deny this,” says the narrator, “and clouds pass over me and through me, and I do not know if it is now or then or some time still to come.”
Further on, as Berlin collapses, the narrator asks: “And am I to enjoy the spectacle? The flash of flak, the radiant clouds? Shall I delight in the bubbling asphalt, the rubble rain, the fuses that play dead? The firestorm gusts that bend trees four storey’s high? The haphazard blockbusters, the incendiaries that drop into chimneys and gutterings, fierce stars deaf to any wish? The phosphorous fires that cannot be put out with water, the phosphorous burns that cannot be treated?”
Some readers might revel in such images delivered in six straight rhetorical questions, but not this one. More crucially, this voice so often mediates the action that it undermines engagement with the characters. Erich and another child, Sieglinde, come to feel like puppets on a grand stage. Which is what they are, of course, as they live their unformed lives under a vile, dog-eat-dog regime. But to engage the reader and thus counterpoint the vileness, they must live in our imaginations.
Erich is an only child living in the country among bees and hens. Sieglinde lives a comfortable middle-class life in Berlin. Erich’s father is away at the war and Erich is increasingly troubled, not just by his father’s absence. Sieglinde collects bits of shrapnel and goes on increasingly ghastly school trips to factories, the apogee of which is seeing “clever ladies” make useful things from hair. Her father earns a living as a censor, cutting from books words offensive to the Nazi regime, while her nervy mother keeps count of the family’s cutlery and china.
The flyleaf suggests that the substance of the novel will be a meeting between these two children that will shape the rest of their lives. When they do finally meet, on page 278, the pace of the novel immediately picks up, enough to make me wish this had been the novel’s starting point. Up to now, we have been asked to absorb an accumulation of detail – on the histories and day-to-day events of each family’s life – which too often had me wondering if I really needed to know all this.
The research behind The Wish Child is impressive. But it doesn’t wear its research lightly. The text feels over-stuffed with history and symbolism, a good deal of which will escape the Common Reader. The prose too is impressively wrought. But its elevated tone echoes with its own importance. This struck me hard in the form of one small preposition. Sieglinde’s aunt is showing her iron bracelets that were given to replace a gift of gold jewellery to the state: “She took the iron bracelets from their box lined with sky-blue silk and fastened them about Sieglinde’s wrists.” That “about” – rather than the more natural “round” – is high-flown, one tiny example of the voice of an author aiming beyond the reach of her own characters.
I expect all three Circumstances to result in The Wish Child being lauded and rewarded, certainly in New Zealand (it’s already been longlisted for the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards). And perhaps it should be. Perhaps a 10 out of 10 for ambition ought to sweep other considerations aside. Perhaps I’m alone in feeling I don’t want an author to “meditate” on my behalf, profoundly or otherwise. But I dislike being told what to think. I want fiction to make me feel enough to inspire my own private meditations.
The Wish Child (Victoria University Press, $45) by Catherine Chidgey is available at Unity Books.
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