Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey

I loved Catherine Chidgey’s lesser known novel The Transformation, more than the award winning debut In a Fishbone Church, so I was curious about and looking forward to her latest novel.

Buchenwald Weimar WWII novel GermanyThough truthfully, I had been avoiding it due to its 522 pages and subject matter, it does require a commitment. 

After reading and enjoying Marzahn, mon amour also set in Germany, I decided why not just remain in the same location, even though Remote Sympathy takes us back to that tragic period in history.

An incredibly accomplished novel, it is told using four narrative strands in different voices, through letters, diaries, recordings and a community reflection,  backed up but never bogged down by a solid foundation of research and testimony.

The fictional story relates to events during the second world war, around the lives of two German families, the citizens of the town of Weimar and the prisoners of Buchenwald, a camp located just up the hill from the town.

The novel demonstrates the responses of people, in different circumstances, showing how they behave and manage their lives, what they choose to acknowledge and to ignore, the lies they tell themselves and others, faced with the extreme conditions of living under the Third Reich (Nazi Germany).

Four Entwined Narratives

Doctor Lenard Weber, the inventor

Anatomy nervous system of manThe novel begins with an epistolary narrative of letters written by Doktor Lenard Weber to his daughter Lotte in Frankfurt 1946, after the war has ended. He is telling his daughter how he first first met her mother, his wife Anna, at an exhibition of ‘The Transparent Man’, an installation that showed the inner circuitry of the human body.

The exhibit further inspired him with his own ideas on the therapeutic uses of electricity and the invention of his Sympathetic Vitaliser, a machine that he believed might heal the body of disease.

But it was the eighteenth century writings of John Hunter, the great Scottish surgeon, that sparked the idea for my machine: his theory that the cure as well as the disease could pass through a person by means of remote sympathy; that the energetic power produced in one part of the body could influence another part some distance away.

However, they were living in dangerous times and at the time of their marriage, neither of them knew their family ancestry would drive them apart and that his invention would draw him into the lives of an SS officer and his wife.

But I wanted to tell you about the miracles, Lotte. There are three in this story – I’ll start with the first.

Frau Greta Hahn, the wife of an SS major

SS officer villas BuchenwaldThe second narrative voice comes from the imaginary diary of Frau Greta Hahn, the younger wife of the officer and begins in 1943 as she is packing up their lives in Munich, to move to a villa in Weimar, her husband having taken over as Administrator of the Buchenwald prison camp. He has told her and their young son Karl-Heinz how much they will love it there, being near a forest, a zoo, close to nature.

‘Taking a child to a place like that,’ said my mother.
‘It’s quite safe,’ I told her; ‘We’ll be living well outside the enclosure. We won’t even be able to see it. Apparently the villa’s beautiful – you can come and stay whenever you like.’

An invitation her mother is loathe to take up, even when Greta becomes very unwell.

Greta chooses to live in denial, unlike her friend and neighbour Emmi, who delights in their newfound circumstances and privilege. Her discomfort turns inward and she finds herself in need of a radical medical intervention.

1000 citizens of Weimar

One of the narrative threads is a third person “we” voice, the collective reflections of one thousand citizens of the town of Weimar. This community is proud of their town’s association with a number of past eminent citizens and love to show visitors Goethe’s garden house in the park, with its bee-filled beds of flowers and to speak of others who had called their town home.

The Goethe oak still stands, though, not far from here – the tree beneath which the poet wrote some of his most celebrated verse, and rested with Charlotte von Stein. They say that if it falls, Germany will also perish…

They hear strange noises, they smell the smoke, they see signs of maltreatment, but for every observation that doesn’t fit with their idealised version of home, they have an excuse, an accusation, an alternative perspective, so loathe are they to admit even the thought of what might be going on up the hill. Anyone who shows concern or empathy is scorned by a cacophony of voices.

Former SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn, the husband, the major

This first person narrative begins in October 1954, a taped, sometimes interrupted interview with the major who is under trial. He talks about the stress of his job, the insistence that it was a work camp, the pressure of budgets, his family and his desire to have a large family. It is the perspective of a man in charge of his responsibilities who refuses to acknowledge any human suffering (except his own).

The lives of the couple and the Doktor become entwined when the major hears of the medical invention and arranges to have him imprisoned in the hope that he may assist his wife. The presence of the Doktor and the young boy Josef who is their housekeeper, challenge her ideas about the so-called ‘criminals’ being held in the camp next door.

Seeking Salvation Through Lies

Though one man represents power and the other is a prisoner, both men possess something that the other desires, they both believe that some kind of salvation might be able to be obtained from the other. Ultimately both will lie, in the hope of getting what they want.

Though ‘remote sympathy’ refers to the healing action of the machine, it is also a theme running through the novel. Greta’s denial of what is occurring over the fence prevents her from confronting the truth, there is little sympathy for something one refuses to see, but she feels it and pays the price, it is literally eating away at her within.

Likewise, her husband obsesses about budgets and cutbacks, without ever acknowledging the human impact, in personal and institutionally narcissistic acts, depriving inmates of basic necessities in order to meet financial pressures. Privately, he succumbs to behaviours that initially alleviate the stress, but will lead to their downfall.

The Consequence of Willful Blindness, Ignorance and Fear

It’s a novel of great discomfort and incredulity, in that it imagines the inner lives and perspectives of an officer, his wife and son, their military family neighbours – it focuses on this more so than it narrates the lives of the prisoners, as most of the story and gaze takes place outside the camp, among the privileged, including the Doktor himself, who has found himself in an enviable yet dangerous position.

The use of letters, diaries, an interview and a reflection create a slight distance between the reader and the narrative, we too become observers, avoiding the discomfort of a first person narrative told in the present. Ironically, the effect of that is to avoid a sense of connection or emotional resonance, recreating that uncomfortable, debilitating situation of being a silent, unobserved witness.

It is a thought provoking, disturbing read that highlights the failings and frailties of humankind, the inclination to look away or make up stories to avoid confronting brutal harsh truths about our own inhumanity and the ease with which people lie in pursuit of a desire, refusing to acknowledge their own culpability or wrongdoing, their harm.

And it is a nod too, to the small tangible things that humans find to create meaning, to restore hope, to get through another day, the wooden remains of an oak tree, a photo, pages from a book, a prayer card.

And On It Goes

It occurred to me at the end, that Claire Keegan’s disturbing novella Small Things Like These addresses a similar issue in relation to the collective blindness of community, in the culpability and denial of the Irish (in families, institutions and villages) in their incarceration of young women and the trafficking of their babies, more crimes against humanity that we are only just beginning to come out of dark ignorance about, to be truthfully acknowledged.

Remote sympathy is everywhere and nowhere.

Remote Sympathy was published in the UK in April 2021 by Europa Editions.

Further Reading

Tanya Hart (daughter of a Holocaust survivor) Interviews Catherine Chidgey

Lisa at ANZLITLover’s review

Catherine Chidgey, Author

Remote Sympathy Germany BuchenwaldCatherine Chidgey is an award-winning and bestselling New Zealand novelist and short-story writer.

Her first novel, In a Fishbone Church, won the Betty Trask Award, and was longlisted for the Orange PrizeGolden Deed was Time Out’s Book of the year, a Best Book in the LA Times Book Review and a Notable Book in the New York Times Book Review. Her fourth novel, The Wish Child (2016) won the 2017 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, the country’s major literary prize and Remote Sympathy (2021) was also shortlisted for the same prize.

N.B. Thank you kindly to Europa Editions for providing an ARC (Advance Reader Copy)

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2020, shortlist and the winner

This is a relatively new prize in the UK, established and run by the University of Warwick and now in it’s 3rd year.  Its aim is to address the gender imbalance in translated literature and to increase the number of international women’s voices:

Women in Translation Warwick Prize ShortlistSeven titles were shortlisted for the annual Women in Translation award from 132 eligible entries, 16 titles made the initial longlist:

The 7 shortlisted titles included 3 novels (one an epistolary novel), 2 collections of short stories, 1 collection of letters, and 1 young adult novella.

Six languages were represented: Arabic (Sudan), Chinese (China & Malaysia), German (Georgia/Germany), Hungarian (Hungary), Italian (Italian) & Swedish (Finland).

The shortlist was dominated by independent publishers, including Comma Press and 5 publishers who appeared on the shortlist for the first time: Daunt Books, Granta, HopeRoad, Scribe UK and Sort of Books.

Seven make the Shortlist

The full list of shortlisted titles, in alphabetical order, is as follows:

Abigail Magda Szabo HungaryAbigail by Magda Szabó (Hungary), translated by Len Rix (MacLehose Press, 2020)

– the story of a headstrong teenager growing up during World War II. Gina is the only child of a general, a widower who has long been happy to spoil his bright and willful daughter. Gina is devastated when the general tells her he must leave and she will attend a boarding school in the country and more so when she discovers how grim it is. She fights with her students, rebels against teachers, is ostracized and runs away. Caught and returned, she is entrusted to the legendary Abigail.

 

Natalia Ginzburg Happiness As Such Happiness, As Such by Natalia Ginzburg (Italy) translated by Minna Zallmann Proctor (Daunt Books Publishing, 2019)

– The story of the Prodigal Son turned on its head, Happiness, As Such is a short, absurdly funny novel-in-letters about complicated families and missed connections.
Michele is the beloved only son of a large, dysfunctional family in 1970s Italy. Headstrong and independent, he has disappeared to London without explanation. Back in Italy, his father lies dying. Michele’s departure sets forth a series of events that will bring together everyone in his life.

 

Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong (Malaysia) translated from Chinese by Natascha Bruce (Granta Publications, 2019)

– A portrait of Malaysian society in nine stories, Lake Like a Mirror explores the lives of women buffeted by powers beyond their control. Squeezing themselves between the gaps of rabid urbanisation, patriarchal structures and a theocratic government, these women find their lives twisted in disturbing ways.

In precise and disquieting prose, Ho Sok Fong draws her readers into a richly atmospheric world of naked sleepwalkers in a Muslim women’s home, mysterious wooden boxes, gossip in unlicensed hairdressers, hotels with amnesiac guests, and poetry classes with accidentally charged politics – a world that is both bizarre and utterly true.

 

Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson (Finland) edited by Boel Westin & Helen Svensson, translated from Swedish by Sarah Death (Sort of Books, 2019)

– Out of the thousands of letters Tove Jansson wrote, a cache remains that she addressed to her family, her dearest confidantes, and her lovers, male and female. Into these she spilled her innermost thoughts, defended her ideals and revealed her heart. To read these letters is both an act of startling intimacy and a rare privilege.

Penned with grace and humour, this collection offers an almost seamless commentary on her life as it unfolds within Helsinki’s bohemian circles and her island home. Spanning 50 years between her art studies and the height of Moomin fame, they cover the bleakness of war, hopes for love that were dashed and renewed, and her determined attempts to establish herself as an artist.

Vivid, inspiring and shining with integrity, Letters from Tove shows precisely how an aspiring and courageous young artist can evolve into a very great one.

 

Translated Fiction The Eight LifeThe Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili (Georgia/Germany), translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (Scribe UK, 2019)

–  the story of seven women living through one of the greatest drama’s of the twentieth century.

1900, Georgia: in the deep south of the Russian Empire, Stasia, the daughter of a famous chocolatier, dreams of ballet in Paris, but marries a soldier, and is caught up in the October Revolution. Escaping with her children, she finds shelter with her unworldly sister Christine, whose beauty, fatally, has caught the eye of Stalin’s henchman. Disastrous consequences ensue for the whole family.

2006, Germany: after the fall of the Iron Curtain Georgia is shaken by a civil war. Niza, Stasia’s great granddaughter has broken from her family and moved to Berlin. But when her 12-year-old niece Brilka runs away, Niza must track her down and tell her the truth about their family — and about the secret recipe for hot chocolate, which has given both salvation and misfortune over six generations.

Epic and absorbing, The Eighth Life is a novel of seven exceptional lives lived under the heat and light of empire, revolution, war, repression, and liberation.

 

Rania Mamoun Thirteen Months of Sunrise Translated FictionThirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun (Sudan), translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Comma Press, 2019)

– A young woman sits by her father’s deathbed, lamenting her failure to keep a promise to him…

A struggling writer walks every inch of the city in search of inspiration, only to find it is much closer than she imagined…

A girl collapses from hunger at the side of the road and is rescued by the most unlikely of saviours…

In this powerful, debut collection of stories, Rania Mamoun blends the real and imagined to create a rich, complex and moving portrait of contemporary Sudan. From painful encounters with loved ones to unexpected new friendships, Mamoun illuminates the breadth of human experience and explores, with humour and compassion, the alienation, isolation and estrangement that is urban life.

 

White Horse Yan Ge China Warwick Prize TranslationWhite Horse by Yan Ge (China), translated from Chinese by Nicky Harman (HopeRoad, 2019)

– This compact novella contains a gripping psychological tale, enlivened by wickedly sharp insights into contemporary small-town life in China.

Yun Yun lives in a small West China town with her widowed father and an uncle, aunt, and older cousin who live nearby. One day, her once-secure world begins to fall apart. Through her eyes, we observe her cousin, Zhang Qing, keen to dive into the excitements of adolescence, but clashing with repressive parents. Ensuing tensions reveal that the relationships between the two families are founded on a terrible lie.

Three Commended By the Judges

Although not on the shortlist, 3 titles from the longlist were singled out for commendation by the judges:

Isabella Isabella Morra Poetry ItalyIsabella (Smokestack Books, 2019), a collection of fiercely feminist poems by the Italian Renaissance writer Isabella Morra translated by Caroline Maldonado

– Isabella Morra (c1520-1545/6) was born into an impoverished aristocratic family in Southern Italy. Forced to live in strict isolation in the family castle in Valsinni on a steep cliff above the Ionian Sea, she devoted herself to writing a series of extraordinary poems, ‘amaro, aspro e dolente’ (‘bitter, harsh and sorrowful’), about her longing for escape. When she was twenty-six she was brutally murdered by three of her brothers in an honour killing. She was buried in an unmarked grave, and her poetry was forgotten for several hundred years.

The Way Through the Woods On Mushrooms and Mourningthe extraordinary memoir about mushrooms and grief, The Way Through the Woods (Scribe UK, 2019) by Malaysian-born Long Litt Woon, translated from Norwegian by Barbara Haveland

– A grieving widow feeling disconnected from life discovers an unexpected passion, hunting for mushrooms, in a story of healing and purpose.
Long Litt Woon moved to Norway from Malaysia as a nineteen-year-old exchange student. Soon after her arrival, she met Eiolf who became the love of her life. After thirty-two years together, Eiolf’s sudden death left Woon struggling to imagine a life without the man who had been her soulmate and best friend. Adrift in grief, Woon signed up for a beginner’s course on mushrooming. She found, to her surprise, that the hunt for mushrooms and mushroom knowledge rekindled her appetite for life, awakened her dulled senses providing a source of joy and meaning.

Marion Brunet Summer of Reckoningand the pacey young adult thriller set in a small French town rife with racism and rage Summer of Reckoning (Bitter Lemon Press, 2020) by Marion Brunet, translated from French by Katherine Gregor.

– in the suffocating atmosphere of a social housing estate in the south of France, sixteen-year-old Céline and her sister Jo, fifteen, dream of escaping to somewhere far from their daily routine, far from their surly, alcoholic father and uncaring mother, both struggling to make ends meet.

A dark and upsetting account of an ailing society, filled with silent and murderous rage

And the winner is…

Translated Fiction The Eight Life

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

‘Elegant … It is a triumph of both authorship and painstaking translation … The Eighth Life is an unforgettable love letter to Georgia and the Caucasus, to lives led and to come, and to writing itself.’

CATHERINE TAYLOR, THE ECONOMIST

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,

Sea swell at Manu Bay, Raglan, NZ

Sea swell at Manu Bay, Raglan, NZ

I read Anthony Doerr’s book after finishing two books that didn’t work too well for me and so the experience of dipping into the first few pages of Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See was like exiting the murky depths of a turbulent current to float in that gentle swell of the ocean just before the breakwater, where the waves lift us up and down like a life buoy without breaking.

Reading Doerr’s words and meeting his characters Marie-Laure, Werner and Jutta caresses the mind like the sea cradling the body as if it were weightless.

That light, the gentle caress of words that uplift, that intrigue, that follow through on their promise, that warns of tragedy and provides the reader with a guide to navigate the pages that follow.

All the LightMarie-Laure and her father live within walking distance of the Natural History Museum in Paris, where he works as the master of locks, the keyholder. When she is six Marie-Laure loses her sight and every year after that her father builds her a wooden structure that is a kind of puzzle box. Using her hands, she explores the gift to finds its hidden secret and despite its increasing sophistication and difficulty, each year it takes her less time to crack its ingenious code, opening it to reveal the gift within.

He also builds her a model of their neighbourhood, every home, building, street. She memorises it until she is ready to go out and discover the area in its life-size proportion. When the Germans occupy Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo to stay with her reclusive Uncle and his housekeeper where they must build another model she will learn to navigate.

“For a long time though, unlike his puzzle boxes, his model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one represents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance; in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.

But her father’s model of the same intersection smells only of dried glue and sawdust. Its streets are empty, its pavements static, to her fingers it serves as little more than a tiny and insufficient facsimile.”

Werner and his sister Jutta are orphans in Germany, their father killed in a coal mining accident. Werner has a fascination for radio, both listening to and repairing them; the siblings discover and listen to broadcasts from as far away as France and England until war approaches, when to be in possession of a radio becomes a dangerous and illegal pastime. However, his talent has not gone unnoticed and will fast-track him into the midst of Hitler’s youth and a role as a detector of radio signals, leading him in wartime to the north of France.

“At midnight he and Jutta prowl the ionosphere, searching for that lavish, penetrating voice. When they find it, Werner feels as if he has been launched into a different existence, a secret place where great discoveries are possible, where an orphan from a coal town can solve some vital mystery hidden in the physical world.”

Radiotriangulation Scheme: Source wikipedia

Radiotriangulation Scheme: Source wikipedia

I really enjoyed this book, it made me care about the characters and interested in their lives and worry about them being on opposite sides of a great war. How could that ever be navigated safely?

Doerr describes the two different worlds of Marie-Laure and Werner with such clarity, overcoming blindness and interesting us in the intricacies of radio circuitry, pathways of electrons, amplifiers and transformer coils as if they were the most fascinating thing ever invented.

It is a story of survival, perseverance, passion and obsession set in the years leading up to and during WWII, it brings the streets, homes and sea wall of Saint Malo into the reader’s imagination where we too learn to see without seeing. And it will may make you curious to read Jules Verne if you haven’t already.

Anthony Doerr transmits an infectious enthusiasm for the story, creating endearing characters with rich, enticing prose, all the elements of great literary fiction that can entertain.

Further Reading:

New York Times Review Light Found in Darkness of Wartime

 

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

 

The Mussel Feast

Revolutionary Moments

Mussel FeastThe first novella of the Peirene Press 2013 collection is Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, a reference to an evening meal of a family for whom a mussel feast signifies a special celebration and provokes a familiar family ritual.

This evening however, is a an event (or a non-event) of angst-ridden anticipation, as the mother and her teenage son and daughter prepare the feast and wait for their father to return from work with news that was supposed to have been a given.

There is little action or plot, though much is revealed throughout the course of the evening via the reflections of those present, who, as the minutes and hours pass, become emboldened in their thoughts as they are allowed to run on unchecked and unchallenged by he who normally acts as judge.

Just observing how the words fill up entire pages of this novella, creating a seamless run of sentences without pause or paragraph is admirable and makes me pause in my reading to check if every page is formatted the same, And it is. The constant stream of words is synonymous with an outpouring of frustration, the way the words are presented on the page like a revolutionary act itself. No dialogue, no action, a stream of consciousness charting the psychological passage of a family through the familiar acts of a routine that will manifest in wilful rebellion.

The Mussel Feast should be a cause for celebration when the routine is adhered to. When a crack opens in the routine and the feast is spoiled, who knows what uncharacteristic behaviour may follow.

An original and thought provoking read, one I devoured easily, as promised by Peirene, it is unique in its ability to keep the reader engaged while using a narrative style that is less popular today and yet succeeds in captivating its audience.

The first of her 17 novels, I look forward to reading more of her work and would love to hear any recommendations from others who have read her work.

“I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.” Birgit Vanderbeke

Next up in Peirene’s Revolutionary Moments series is Mr Darwin’s Gardener  by Kristina Carlson, which from the reviews I have read, already sounds just like my kind of book…

CIMG4717

Magda

Magda (2)In the course of Meike Ziervogel’s novella, we meet three generations of women in one family, an embittered grandmother, her daughter Magda and the lovesick teenager Helga. They have little in common except the desire to improve their lives and those of their children, something in which all three of them will spectacularly fail.

Magda succeeded in elevating her station in life, though some may have perceived that she achieved notoriety only through marriage. However, from an early age she appeared to decide she deserved better than the position society had set her; taking her destiny into her own hands it manifested physically in the clothes she wore, the adornments with which she accessorised and in her comportment. She kept quiet about her material accumulation, but her gestures spoke volumes and even as she volunteered selflessly to help those less well off, others looked at her with scorn and derision.

Despite her mother’s efforts to do her best by her headstrong daughter, that didn’t mean she should give herself airs and graces she was not born to, at least that was her mother’s opinion.

Was it a consequence of being sent to a convent for schooling at a young age (at the suggestion of a new stepfather) that developed her resourcefulness and sense of superiority? By the time her mother decided to end her education and send her to work in a factory to smother that conceited attitude, the stepfather who had come to adore the charming girl, would have none of it.

We learn of the mother’s perception of Magda after the fall of Hitler, whilst she is being interviewed by a commissar and she is revelling in having an important audience in which to denounce her child – though more through envy, jealousy and a sense of outrage at being unappreciated, forgotten even – not quite the admission of guilt he is looking for, though he hopes it may contribute to establishing Magda’s fanaticism.

It reflects the irony of a mother wanting the best for her baby girl and then having to live in the shadow of who her offspring has become, someone unreachable, who has by necessity let go and left the bitter mother full of resentment behind.

Magda_Goebbels

Magda Goebbels

Upon receiving this book from the author Meike Ziervogel, (also founder of the publishing company Peirene Press), I read a few mentions of intentions to read Magda that indicated a certain wariness, expecting it to be disturbing, as do a few of the more provocative blurb comments, suggesting the portrayal of mother’s as abusers and the association of one mother being a Nazi sympathiser and married to a prominent figure in that regime (Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister).

I didn’t find the book like that at all and found the suggestion that…

…abuse breeds abuse through generation after generation. – Frederick Taylor, author of Exorcising Hitler

…misleading, even false.

I found much to admire in Ziervogel’s depiction of the character Magda, her ability to use disadvantage to her advantage, her separation from her mother allowed her to amass inner resources, to learn another language, to create a persona that made her different. She understood implicitly her mother’s advice that she should better her social status; her falling – or failing – was the direction in which she channelled the fire within her, that desperate need for some kind of meaningful fulfillment, that was at its height at the wrong time in history, her calling came not for Him (God) but for him (the Führer).

She believed in him and his vision with a fanaticism, similar to religious fanaticism and in the same way that a small minority of devout religious followers go to extremes for their beliefs, so too does Magda.

Helga’s is a brief, heart-breaking coming-of-age story, the story within the story and it seems appropriate that she, the innocent, is depicted through a different narrative structure, the intimacy of her private diary.

As I reread the last three chapters a second time, I noted  all the chapter headings which read like flash fiction, framing the story in less than thirty words.

3 generations by Allia

3 generations by Allia

The Preparation

The Girl Behind Convent Walls

The Mother and the Commissar

The Calling

Helga’s Diaries

The Pill Box

The Vision of Magda Goebbels

The Final Task

As a novella, Magda doesn’t waste words, yet it manages to depict the depth of the three generations of its female characters. While it succeeds here, the end remains shocking and disturbing, unjustified, it is impossible to accept.

The book is fiction, inspired by real historical figures and events. I have written these thoughts without having read about the actual life of Johanna Maria Magdalena “Magda” Goebbels (11 November 1901-1 May 1945), wishing to pay closer attention to the author’s story and her character creation than the historical account, which could easily overshadow one’s impression of a work of fiction.

Shadows & Wings Giveaway

Niki_Tulk_ShadowsAndWings

Niki Tulk
Author of Shadows & Wings

Thank you to author Niki Tulk for offering to provide two readers with a digital version of her debut novel Shadows & Wings.

Synopsis:

Tomas, a cellist and dreamer, denies the devastating changes happening in 1930’s Germany—until he is drafted into Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Many years later, having emigrated to Australia, he raises his granddaughter Lara to love music and birds. He also chooses to hide from her a terrible secret.

When her beloved Opa dies, 22 year-old Lara receives a shadow box of mysterious ornaments that force her to confront his past. Seeking to understand his years of silence, and to find a way through her own grief, she travels to Germany—the objects her only guide.

Shadows & WingsShadows & Wings is a novel of cyclic journeys between hemispheres, the connections between ourselves and those we can never know, and the haunting power of art, love and dreams.

*

If you haven’t seen my review, click here to read it.

If you would like to be in the draw for one of the two digital copies, please leave a comment below.

The draw closes on Saturday 4th May.

Shadows & Wings by Niki Tulk

Shadows & WingsLara’s father works abroad and early on in the story when Lara is seven, she and her sister learn he isn’t coming back home to Australia. She is close to her grandfather Opa, though realises a little late that there is much about his life that she doesn’t know, questions she never asked him, a subject her mother won’t speak of.

At his death, her great-aunt passes her the contents of an old wooden box, objects wrapped carefully and put away, never to be looked at; they will prompt her to travel to Germany to uncover his role in the second world war.

celloAt this point, we go back to the 1930’s to a small village in Germany where Tomas (Opa) and his friend Gustav live, Tomas’ father repairs violins, cellos and similar musical instruments and although initially Tomas doesn’t wish to play, when Gustav becomes interested and starts taking lessons, Tomas’ rekindles his love for the cello and will pursue music with the same determined passion his father had wished he would pursue a profession.

In school they are wary of the bullying Hans and his troop of followers and avoid them as much as they can, observing as they become teenagers their joining up a young Nazi youth group, something Tomas and Gustav avoid, but as 1939 approaches it will become impossible not to join their country’s ranks.

The story of the boys in their youth reminded me of David Mitchell’s excellent novel Black Swan Green and Niki Tulk successfully captures that essence of survival developed by children on and off the playground, only here for many, those playground antics would escalate to being drafted into Hitler’s Wehrmacht, and a war with repercussions and psychological consequences that would continue into subsequent generations.

Lara’s grandfather arrived later, a thin half-man on a ship that emptied its human cargo unsympathetically into a bright and bristling land. Here, not long enough after the Second World War, those who bore in their eyes another hemisphere were received with cool politeness. It was not their accents so much as their eyes – they held a silence that made others who had grown up here suddenly feel they needed to defend themselves. Tomas had discovered Lara’s grandmother like a familiar face in this country.

Lara’s search into her grandfather’s past and meeting Anton and friends in Berlin brings those repercussions forward to the present day. Lara’s own fragility and insecurities threaten to undermine her search and if it weren’t for Anton, her patient guide and new-found friend, we are left with the impression that her endeavour may quite well have failed. Her journey seemed at times so realistic, she seemed so ill-prepared and at times insensitive to what she might encounter by knocking on the doors of strangers, that it felt as if I were reading non-fiction. Unnerving yet totally believable.

The book falls into three main sections, Lara growing up in Australia with her mother and grandparents, Tomas as a boy and young man in Germany and finally Lara at 22-years-old on her extended visit to Germany.

albatross

An albatross in flight Photo: Wikipedia

Interspersed throughout the third person narrative, is Tomas’ journey on the boat between Europe and Australia and these short entries of a page or two entitled The Gift of Birds, The Gift of Time, Memory and Dreams provide some of the more poignant passages, they are the pages I returned to and reread a second time, some even a third.

They are written in the first person, at times focused on the present,  on the passage across the ocean and the words of a man making the same voyage who is knowledgeable about birds and their habits, and at other times they describe remnants of his dreams, regrets, the past, all that he intends to leave behind him when he disembarks. They provide a reflective counterpoint to the harsh reality of daily life in Germany as a young man, a life which drove him towards an activity he had no ambition for. These pages rebuild hope and show us the man he was.

“The cycle of the ages is the foundation.”

The man who loves birds stares into his fingers, deep in thought. “They recede, they advance… and the pattern of migration adjusts and adapts over many thousands of years. They are,” he adds, “in tune with the ages, whereas we consider only our own lifetimes. We are short-term thinkers, unfortunately.”

It is a thought-provoking story of the depths to which we go to protect our loved ones from the horrors of the past and suggests that silence isn’t always the route towards salvation, that memories and guilt often live on in subsequent generations, that a deprivation of family knowledge can lead to an obsession to fill in the gaps.

It reminds us that our elders are a source of great learning and that we shouldn’t wait until after they have gone to understand what life has taught them. It cautions us not to judge that which we haven’t experienced and to beware of what we might find when we go digging into the past of those who have tried to bury deep the horrors that return to them only in their sleep.

Thank you Niki for providing me with a copy of your book, not only a great story, but beautifully printed and music to accompany composed together and played by Niki on cello and her husband Mark on piano.

Shadows & Wings – the 5 track EP.

Giveaway – enter the draw to win one of two digital copies of Shadows & Wings

Australian Literature Month – April is Australia Literature Month,  visit Reading Matters to find out more.