DWRF: Catherine Chidgey, with Emma Neale

Each time the Writers & Readers Festival comes to town, the Dunedin autumn becomes clear, still and nuanced. Catherine Chidgey sat on stage this Sunday afternoon and embodied the qualities of the season.

cv_the_wish_child_nzThe festival audience was treated to an articulate conversation between Chidgey and Emma Neale, herself a poised speaker and talented writer. The word and thought chemistry between the two speakers was significant, and it enabled a depth of response from Chidgey on such topics as the tug of Germany, the novelist’s craft and the thirteen-year gestation of her new novel, The Wish Child.

Neale began with an autobiography of Chidgey the writer, and a description of her particular talents. This was an excellent way to bring the audience into the circle of conversation. Chidgey then read a long passage from The Wish Child; this drew the listeners in closer still, and provided context for the ongoing discussion (as well as convincing anyone sensible that this was a book to buy and read in its entirety).

The scene that was read was laden with sensual, often visceral detail ‘…the glittering callipers above his skull…’ ‘…the bees huddled in their hives… and the geese hung by their necks…’ and foreshadowing ‘German boys should be brave… should know that some things had to die’; this combination of delicate detail and exaggerated description is deliberate on the part of Chidgey, and a feature of her best writing. There are echoes of Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum here. The effect is a sense of constant unease for the reader, a feeling that death lives inside ripe matter. This style of writing, of perceiving is entirely appropriate to the subject of the novel: Nazi Germany and its aftermath, a time when bizarre, exaggerated things happened and became part of daily life.

berlin-1816944_960_720.jpgDuring the course of a very swift hour, with fingers fluttering in a Lynchian sort of way, Chidgey laid out the processes involved in writing The Wish Child: her connection to Germany based on time spent there as a shy high school student from Lower Hutt, then on a scholarship in Berlin not long after the fall of the wall, being affected by the visible history in a city still divided. She spoke of the balance to be found between writing and researching, so that the latter doesn’t dominate unduly yet is given the opportunity to shape the narrative. She spoke of the scope of this novel being larger than any she had written previously, of how life events intervene, of how writing Facebook posts about cats had distracted her at times… cue knowing laughter from the audience. Now she works two jobs and has a toddler, so 6am has become the time to write, which has not been a bad thing, ‘as the internal censor does not yet seem to be on!’

When Emma Neale closed the session with the question, ‘And what next?’ Chidgey was able to allude to two projects in progress, which was reassuring; from a selfish point of view, it is good to think that after The Wish Child there will be more from the still, clear, nuanced mind of a fine, fine writer.

Attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Ed’s note: Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child (VUP) and Emma Neale’s Billy Bird (are both up for the Acorn Foundation Literary Award at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards on Tuesday evening. You can see Chidgey at various events during the Auckland Writers Festival. You can similarly, see Neale at the Auckland Writers Festival next week.

The Wish Child
by Catherine Chidgey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560622

Billy Bird
by Emma Neale
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770053

Book Review: Seelenbinder, by James McNeish

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_seelenbinderFor a book written about a man in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, Seelenbinder reads more like a casual conversation in a café than the biography of an Olympic wrestler and member of the Resistance.

James McNeish manages to deliver this story in an easy and comfortable manner, seemingly writing more for the reader than for the history books. He blends together historical facts and events with his own style of storytelling, inventing conversations and painting Seelenbinder’s life for us in interesting colours. He talks to the reader at times, inviting us into his process of writing, moving between his own experiences and motivations and those of his subject. Seelenbinder, the Olympian who defied Hitler comes across as a highly interesting and engrossing, if at times confronting, book about a man largely forgotten.

McNeish somehow manages to expertly combine history and fact with his own storytelling. At one point he compares himself to Scheherazade, the narrator of The Arabian Nights, saying that at times he must invent. He is open about his own writing, letting us know what is invented and what is not. At times he gives us options, different possibilities of what actually happened. These moments in McNeish’s writing are inviting, they feel casual and give life to the history. It draws you into the pages, creating an engaging story, filled with both fact and fiction.

Where his writing style is interesting and engaging, so too is his subject. After reading the book I asked my parents, who lived and grew up in Germany before the reunification, if they had ever heard of Werner Seelenbinder. By McNeish’s account, it is not surprising that they haven’t. “The process of un-naming goes on.”

Seelenbinder remains mostly forgotten, and this book feels like an appropriate stepping stone to bringing him back into history. Through McNeish we see Seelenbinder not simply as a historical or political figure (as he is often viewed), but as an interesting and complex man who endured the hardships of his time. Alongside other important figures and groups that existed in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, like the July Plotters, he seems to be an important part of German and world history, and yet remains largely forgotten.

McNeish not only tried to relay his life to us, but also deals with this issue, asking the question of why his name disappeared. His journey is just as interesting as Seelenbinder’s, and these multiple lines that run through the book create an interesting and enjoyable read. McNeish has crafted a book that is not only valuable in its exploration of the past, but also serves as an interesting tale to be told, and a unique look into the mind of an author.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Seelenbinder: The man who defied Hitler 
by James McNeish
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9780947493011