The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Cassandra Fusco.
A novelist can offer the public a work which has a political dimension. If free of polemic, such a novel may help us if not understand, then at least recognise the desire for power that exists at fundamentalist levels in politics. Such a novel may caution us to consider the power of exclusive myths, and compel us to question social truth (reality, and the language in which it is coined). It may endorse the value of interpersonal relationships and preclude or impede existential threat.
Without polemic or judgement, Catherine Chidgey’si The Wish Child articulates the rise and fall of a nation’s dream under National Socialism, an extreme, exclusive ideological map of normatively imbued ideas and attitudes, including particular representations of power relations.
The dream is broadcast into homes on radios ‘which, in addition to being affordable and beautiful … will pick up only German Stations … radios built to house the Führer’s voice, and the Gautleiter’s voice, and the stories that describe [Germany’s] latest victories, and Beethoven and Bach’ (p 56). And this exclusive dream is inculcated into schoolchildren’s minds with visits to factories that make ‘significant things’ like badges, buckles, biscuits, stamps and radios (p 33).
Through a tracery of fact and fiction that is neither chronological nor linear, the narrative unfolds the lives of two representative extended families, people desperate to participate in the national dream and build a glorious future. Their devotion to this dream, its dire consequences and eventual disintegration, is compressed into the lives and experiences of three children: Sieglinde (the daughter of a middle-class Berlin family), Erich (an only child living on a farm near Leipzig, tending beehives) and a third child, the enigmatic, narrator, present from the opening pages but ‘absent’, utterly un-intrusive in task: ‘Let me say that I was not in the world long enough to understand it well, so can give you only impressions …’ (p 13).ii
Sieglinde and Erichiii grow in their separate worlds (suburban Berlin and rural Leipzig). As adolescents they meet fleetingly, and innocently share a few terrifying days as the city of Berlin collapses, capitulates. Brutal hands leave an indelible imprint of suffering on them; pain that grows without ceasing in consciousness – despite their survival, their separate married lives, and their eventual reunion. They are, the narrator tells us, like ‘[l]ittle smudges, traces of light and shadow, breaths in and out’ (p 374). Like the narrator, they are witnesses; the ‘memory of damage’ – in triplicate.
That ‘memory of damage’, in Chidgey’s hands, prompts us to ask what the words ‘defective’, ‘inferior’, ‘foremost’ and ‘functional’ mean. And why words such as pity, promise, love, sorrow, God, forgive, evacuate, exterminate, Mendelssohn, surrender, defeat, Versailles and remembrance, should be excised, being considered ‘dangerous’, and by whom?
The Wish Child draws us into considerations of the power of language and the meaning makers.iv It encourages us to be conscious, to ask if language carries conscience, that faculty that can assist in distinguishing right from wrong; that can assist in building the inner complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual. These and other considerations are wrought through prose and poetryv, and a constellation of recurring motifs, “some overt, some subliminal”vi which combine, fracture and reverberate to form an aching ‘kaleidoscopic’ deliberation on the danger of unchecked power.
Buy it. Read it. And re-read it.
i See: http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/Writers/Profiles/Chidgey,%20Catherine#a1938
ii The author discloses his back story in a ‘Historical Note’, p 380.
iii Sieglinde (derived from the Germanic elements sigu ‘victory’ and linde ‘gentle, soft’) and Erich, meaning: ‘honourable ruler’.
iv In this regard, Keely O’Shannessy’s cover design, a black paper silhouette of a child, might well have been cut out by Sieglinde’s father. O’Shannessy’s image is both Chidgey’s ‘wish child’ and every child.
v Annotated in the author’s Sources is a wide and highly relevant literary-historical spectrum. They include poetry by Georg Trakl (1887-1914), Henriette Hardenberg (1894-1993), Louise Otto (1819-1895), Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), Eduard Mörricke (1804-1875), Sophie Hoechstetter (1873-1943), Friedrich Rücket (1788-1866), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926); many books and websites that deal with the German experience of the Second World War and, without any endorsement, a fragment from Das Wunschkind [The Wish Child] (pub. 1935, 2 vols) a historical novel about the troubles of women and mothers during the Napoleonic wars by the patriotic-conservative writer, Ina Seidel (1885-1974).
vi See: Author’s ‘Notes on Sources’, p 382.
Cassandra Fusco is the Reviews Editor of takahē.