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