The spectral voice of a wistful, mysterious narrator conveys not only the plot, but also the elegiac tone of this chronicle of the acute and lingering damages wrought by blind adherence to ideology.
Chidgey (The Transformation, 2006, etc.), winner of New Zealand’s Acorn Foundation Fiction prize for this work, slowly unspools the parallel stories of two children growing up in Germany as Hitler’s wartime grip becomes a stranglehold. Siggi is the daughter of a comfortable middle-class family in Berlin. Her father works as a government censor redacting words like “freedom” and “defeat” from books and newspapers. “I make things safe,” he tells young Siggi. Erich, a dreamy child with the perfect “German face,” is being raised on a farm near Leipzig by nationalistic parents who censor their family’s past. As war’s relentless devastation mounts in both children’s homes, their worlds become increasingly more surreal, and an element of magical realism surrounds their stories. Their lives briefly entwine during the war in an intense struggle for survival, but they are soon traumatically separated. In adult life, Siggi searches for clues to Erich’s post–Cold War whereabouts, while her career as a “puzzler”—a specialist responsible for restoring documents destroyed by the Stasi before the fall of the Berlin Wall—inversely echoes her father’s wartime responsibilities. Chidgey’s understated and poetic revelations of the banalities of day-to-day life under siege, as the German war effort fails, communicate the corrosive horrors of war with an unrelenting catalog of loss and diminution, leavened only by an occasional dialogue between two hausfraus—fraus Müller and Miller— who vie for moral superiority while spouting malapropisms and vapid, occasionally appalling, protestations of loyalty.
Chidgey's controlled revelation of the identity of her shadowy narrator gradually illuminates the true horrors endured by the rest of the characters in this devastating work.