Book review, Feat., Fiction

Book Review: The Wish Child – Catherine Chidgey

“It’s 1939. Two children watch as their parents become immersed in the puzzling mechanisms of power. Sieglinde lives in the affluent ignorance of middle-class Berlin, her father a censor who cuts prohibited words such as love and mercy out of books. Erich is an only child living a rural life near Leipzig, tending beehives, aware that he is shadowed by strange, unanswered questions. Drawn together as Germany’s hope for a glorious future begins to collapse, the children find temporary refuge in an abandoned theatre amidst the rubble of Berlin. Outside, white bedsheets hang from windows; all over the city people are talking of surrender. The days Sieglinde and Erich spend together will shape the rest of their lives.”

Today is ANZAC day.  Making this the perfect day to review this book.  The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey is the second of this month’s books based on the theme of World War II.  It’s written by a NZ author and has been nominated in the fiction section of the NZ book awards.

The Wish Child is told from the perspective of two German children in the 1940s during WWII.  Erich lives with his bee-keeping parents on a farm in the country.  His mother prays to Hitler, his father goes off to war, and foreign prisoners of war help his mother tend the land.

Sieglinde lives in Berlin with her younger brothers and parents.  Her father replaces the word “God” in the bible with Hitler, and physically cuts words like “Hope” and “Love” from books until the pages resemble Swiss cheese.  For whatever reason, Sieglinde’s parents don’t send her or her brothers away to the country like the other city-dwelling children as the intensity of the war increases. Sieglinde’s mother obsessively counts and records things in their household as a means of coping with the stress of the war.

This books tells the story of WWII from the perspective of those who don’t always understand what they are witnessing.  The reader, who knows of the atrocities of Hitler and the Nazis, fills in the context of the story with their knowledge of that history.  So seemingly innocuous moments in the books take on a horrifying subtext.  There is a scene in the book where Sieglinde attends an auction of the contents of a home with her mother.  The people who lived in the house are never mentioned.  But it becomes increasingly obvious that the contents of the house probably belonged to someone who didn’t relinquish it willingly and won’t be profiting from the sale.  Thus, for some reason, the description of a dried out washcloth had me shuddering in horror.

As a lover of books, I thought I would hate Sieglinde’s father.  Instead I found myself warming to the man who could cut pieces of art from black paper, and who demonstrated love for his family, and a real belief that his work was important for the good of his country.  Erich’s mother on the other hand… well, you will see for yourself.

There are only a few overt and graphically horrific moments in the book, including one of the most disturbing rape scenes I have ever read.  If you are triggered by those sorts of things I would approach this part of the book with caution.  I’m generally pretty resilient, but even I had to put the book down and go outside in the sunshine for the rest of the day.
The writing is quite beautiful even as it is, at times, describing something truly horrific.  It is not an easy or a happy read.  This is the kind of book that expands your reading ability and introduces far more complex feelings than just “happy” or “sad”.  It leaves you feeling conflicted, dirty, confused, hopeful and at times, oddly delighted.  Soothed by the quality of its prose, and horribly agitated by its subject matter.

My only gripe is that there is a part of the story that I don’t understand.  The moving wall.  If you’ve read the book and you get what this was about then please enlighten me!



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