The Wish Child

Written by Catherine Chidgey
Review by Doug Kemp

It has been over ten years since the publication of Catherine Chidgey’s previous novel, also historical fiction. This seems a very long time for someone so talented, who can narrate a story with such finesse and poetic elegance. This novel is set in Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Sieglinde Heilman is a young girl growing up with her bourgeois family in Berlin, and Erich Köning is a young boy living with his family outside Leipzig. While Sieglinde’s father is a civil servant working in censorship bureaucracy, Erich’s father, a farmer, is called up by the Wehrmacht and sent to the Eastern front. The story unfolds to bring Sieglinde and Erich together in the last, apocalyptic days of the War—which is giving nothing away, as the opening chapter reveals that they knew each other through the nearly-retired Sieglinde searching for evidence of Erich’s whereabouts in 1995. There is a moving and surprising conclusion, one that identifies the hitherto distant and vague narrator.

Nazi Germany seems to have an apparently inexhaustible attraction for writers—entirely justified when a writer like Catherine Chidgey is prompted to write such a gentle, well-observed work. There is an increasing element of symbolist fantasy in the narrative, which throws the reader a little, as there was no initial indication that the plot was going to leave the path of grim mundane reality that is wartime Germany. This is an absorbing story, intelligent and literary.