Chidgey, Catherine. Remote Sympathy. New York: Europa Editions, 2021. RRP: $34.99, 528pp, ISBN: 9781787702660.
It’s hard to imagine that a book that deals so intimately with the horrors of Nazi concentration camps in Germany could be so engaging, but somehow Catherine Chidgey seems to find a glimpse of humanity through the characters in her novel, Remote Sympathy.
The story sweeps across multiple narratives, offering various perspectives on the progression of World War II and the nearby Buchenwald prisoner camp which ties its characters together: Doctor Leonard Weber writes to his daughter, there are interview transcripts with former SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn, diaries of his wife Greta Hahn and a chorus of voices formed by the citizens of Weimar.
At the novel’s heart is Dr Weber, who has invented a machine that appears to reduce cancer tumours by a process called remote sympathy. His theory is that the body is a connected network, so rather than trying to cut out the tumour, his machine sends waves through other parts of the body that then move through and eventually break up a cancerous mass. Though it hasn’t been tested to proof, when Weber is sent to Hahn’s camp for having Jewish lineage, Hahn enlists Weber to ‘cure’ his wife Greta after she develops ovarian cancer. Though the plot is simple, Chidgey weaves an intricate tale of love, loss and devastation as the narrative progresses.
There are many moments of breath-taking beauty in this novel, due to Chidgey’s masterful work with language. The narrative is engaging and clips along quickly, but every so often a word or phrase will crop up that gives pause for thought. For instance, when Weber is forced to divorce his wife due to her Jewish heritage and she moves away with his child, he throws himself into his work. They communicate by secret letters and in one Anna asks him to send a photograph of himself:
That night I emptied out all the drawers in my desk at home, looking for the postcard I’d bought in Dresden in 1930: the Transparent Man. And when I found him, I slipped him into an envelope and hid him under the rock. (124)
This simple act reveals much about Weber’s character. That he sees himself as nothing—as empty and transparent without his wife and child—shows the emotional toll that their separation has had on him. This book is full of tiny nuances like this which reveal the real and devastating effects of the war on those who lived through it.
Chidgey’s use of imagery is another reason Remote Sympathy has such power. Rather than relying on clichés, she works subtle images into the narrative that enhance the horror of the situation her characters are in.
‘I don’t want to talk of miracles—’
‘Then don’t,’ I said. But already he’d spoken the word, and it hung in the air between us, a shimmering trick of the light. (260)
In the simplicity of that last sentence, the hope, the power of the word ‘miracle’, is made clear, even as uncertainty is acknowledged in the phrase ‘trick of the light’. In this way, Chidgey tells the reader as much about the potential for Weber’s machine to fail as to succeed.
The horrific aftermath of a bombing raid is described with similar, subtle intensity:
Shards of window glass still jutted from the front garden, as if the Wolffs were growing knives. When I was passing by on my way to treat Frau Hahn I saw a little pile of salvaged possessions by the front steps: a jigsaw puzzle in its box, a hand mirror, a framed print of a donkey in a straw hat. (383)
The devastation wreaked by the bombing raid is summed up in these stark observations from Weber. He doesn’t notice things like blood, body parts or devastated buildings, but signifiers of a life lived such as the mirror, puzzle or amusing picture.
Even as the war draws to a close, and the horrors of the camps in Germany are discovered by the Americans, Chidgey doesn’t bombard the reader with gore and violence. She writes, through Weber, that,
Voss arranged for me to go to a tuberculosis ward, where the SS would not find me. And that is where I stayed, with the dying and the dead, and I listened to them crying for water but there was none to be had, and at night the past ran its drowned fingers across my cheek. (512)
For me, the final part of that sentence is one of the most powerful in the book. Even as the war draws to a close, Weber is still not safe, the past still haunts him mentally and physically as he makes his way out of the camp and we, as readers, understand the effect this has had on him.
In Remote Sympathy Catherine Chidgey has created a beautiful and thought-provoking exploration of the humanity—and inhumanity—of World War II. This is a book that could have been filled to the brim with violence and horror, but instead unfolds its devastation through subtle language, stunning imagery and masterful storytelling.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.