Cather­ine Chidgey in fine form, a son’s jour­ney around Robin Dud­ding, and Sarah Laing’s graphic mem­oir.

North & South - - Columns - by paul lit­tle

THE WISH CHILD CATHER­INE CHIDGEY ( VIC­TO­RIA UNIVER­SITY PRESS, $30)

This World War IIbased novel has sev­eral be­gin­nings. In some un­spec­i­fied time and space, the nar­ra­tor’s voice briefly ex­plains that he or she is not in a po­si­tion to give an ac­cu­rate ac­count of events, only “traces of light and shadow”. We next see Sieglinde, one of the two main pro­tag­o­nists, in 1995 try­ing to glean in­for­ma­tion from spy­ing records of the last days of the GDR. Back in 1939 the Kron­ings, fam­ily of the sec­ond pro­tag­o­nist, Erich, are pre­par­ing for the visit of an in­spec­tor. He calls, ap­pears sat­is­fied and leaves, al­though we do not un­der­stand the pur­pose of his visit. Fol­low­ing this, we are back in the nar­ra­tor’s cus­tody as we’re told, “But this is where I’ll start…” and Poland is in­vaded.

The Wish Child will be an at­tempt to ar­rive at a past truth from frag­men­tary mem­o­ries. The novel cov­ers the course of the war from the Ger­man point of view and, in par­tic­u­lar, from a child’s point of view – the war float­ing in­dis­tinctly at the fringes of their un­der­stand­ing. They learn what bis­cuits the Führer likes. They ap­pre­ci­ate that moth­ers wear iron bands in­stead of wed­ding rings be­cause gold has been melted down for the Führer’s needs.

Even the adults’ points of view are those of chil­dren. They lack aware­ness as they try to fit what is hap­pen­ing and be­yond their com­pre­hen­sion into some sort of con­text that will make sense to them.

The novel is re­mark­able for its au­then­tic­ity; this is a fiercely de­ter­mined act of imag­in­ing that suc­ceeds not just by re­gur­gi­tat­ing well-re­searched de­tails but by recre­at­ing the feel­ing of a time and place.

Chidgey is in fine form when it comes to mak­ing lan­guage jump though her hoops. To give just one ex­am­ple: we fre­quently tag along on wartime school trips where the teacher’s mono­logue em­pha­sises key words to the chil­dren: in­fe­rior, fore­most, func­tional, de­tec­tive. What are these but Nazi leit­mo­tifs that em­body the book’s themes?

Only at the end of this fre­quently mys­ti­fy­ing but never per­plex­ing novel do we un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of those var­i­ous be­gin­nings with a heart-rend­ing epiphany.

BEACH LIFE: A CEL­E­BRA­TION OF KIWI BEACH CUL­TURE DOU­GLAS LLOYD JENK­INS (GOD­WIT, $60)

We are an un­usu­ally wa­tery lot. Seem­ingly from birth, the beach is never far away. “New Zealand is a ring of coastal beaches within which the na­tion is con­tained,” sums up Lloyd Jenk­ins, some­what tau­to­log­i­cally.

No, we don’t spend ev­ery wak­ing minute in sight of the beach, but it would only take us a very short time to get there.

Beaches don’t re­ally do any­thing. They just are, and have been for mil­len­nia. But once you add peo­ple, they get re­ally in­ter­est­ing: the voyeurism, the li­cen­tious­ness, the body ob­ses­sions, the fight­ing and drink­ing and com­pet­i­tive­ness that be­ing on the beach in­duce are Lloyd Jenk­ins’ sub­ject in this so­cial his­tory of a na­tional ob­ses­sion.

The beach has only re­cently been iden­ti­fied as a place of recre­ation. Be­fore that, it was per­haps the start­ing point for a fish­ing ex­pe­di­tion – a place you moved through, not lin­gered on.

Lin­ger­ing brought with it moral con­cerns about peo­ple in close prox­im­ity to each other wear­ing gar­ments that ex­posed vary­ing amounts of their bod­ies. Many were the com­mu­nity-minded moralis­ers who stopped to tell strangers to cover up. Of course, this le­git­imised ex­hi­bi­tion­is­tic so­cial­is­ing was the whole point.

But apart from sex­ual free­dom, the beach also be­came the bat­tle­ground of other so­cial de­vel­op­ments. Part of the post-world War I ap­peal of the beach was as a place of rel­a­tive free­dom. Not many years later the likes of surf life­sav­ing, ac­cord­ing to Lloyd Jenk­ins, al­lowed la­tent in­stincts of mil­i­tarism – no longer ful­filled by of­fi­cial mar­tial ac­tiv­i­ties – to resur­face. When WWII came, the beaches’ role changed again: they were now the lo­cus for po­ten­tial in­va­sions and had to be for­ti­fied as such. Later still, surf­ing – as op­posed to surf life­sav­ing – grew in pop­u­lar­ity. Surf­ing saw a re­turn to val­ues of per­sonal free­dom and out­sider sta­tus.

This is a con­cise but thor­ough, well-il­lus­trated ac­count of the beach and its place in our so­ci­ety.

ART THIEVES, FAK­ERS & FRAUD­STERS: THE NEW ZEALAND STORY PENE­LOPE JACK­SON ( AWA PRESS, $ 40)

Fakes, hoaxes, art thefts… Surely not in our own dear, se­date art mar­ket? Well, yes and then some, ac­cord­ing to Jack­son in her lively ac­count of va­ri­eties of art crime.

The per­fect art forgery, of course, like the per­fect mur­der, is the one no one ever finds out about. There are al­most cer­tainly a few of those in gra­cious homes around the coun­try.

The in­tro­duc­tion by Noah Char­ney, founder of the As­so­ci­a­tion for Re­search into Crimes against Art, overeggs the sit­u­a­tion, par­tic­u­larly lo­cally, when he fo­cuses on the fact that art theft is a ma­jor source of ter­ror­ist fund­ing, es­pe­cially “in the Le­vant”. Less so here, prob­a­bly.

But there is much that’s new in these pages. Many will be sur­prised the penal­ties for art van­dal­ism are so mild – “a com­mu­ni­ty­based sen­tence or a fine not ex­ceed­ing $20,000”.

Art theft for profit is never go­ing to be that re­ward­ing

in New Zealand, where the mar­ket is so small and in­ces­tu­ous that find­ing a buyer for a pur­loined mas­ter­piece presents sig­nif­i­cant ob­sta­cles. Art theft for per­sonal en­joy­ment how­ever, is not, ac­cord­ing to the ev­i­dence here, that dif­fi­cult to pull off.

Se­cu­rity has been on the side of the of­fender many times. Em­bar­rass­ingly, the Auck­land Art Gallery was once of­fered for pur­chase a work which it had not no­ticed had been stolen from its walls years be­fore.

Art crime can have pos­i­tive un­fore­seen con­se­quences – the theft of Colin Mc­c­a­hon’s Urew­era Mu­ral ul­ti­mately led, fol­low­ing its restora­tion, to a tour on which it would have been seen by many more peo­ple than ever would have laid eyes on it in the Ani­waniwa Vis­i­tor Cen­tre at Waikare­moana.

The book is al­most un­fail­ingly mono­cul­tural and does not do jus­tice to a Maori per­spec­tive, for all the van­dal­ism and fak­ery recorded here largely in­volves Euro­pean works of art. The fre­quency and fi­nan­cial value of theft, de­struc­tion and van­dal­ism to taonga Maori, not cov­ered here, would be many, many times greater.

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