DAVID WHISH WILSON
VINTAGE, RANDOM HOUSE, AUSTRALIA, 2006
Book Review by DR. CATHIE DUNSFORD
“If a cooper made a barrel for Flade’s father, it was as if the barrel was made not for his father but for the sake of the barrel itself. Contained in the barrel’s hoops and struts was something that could never be bought: the invisible signature of concentration and intent, and more- of love and craft, and love of craft.” Flade is considering the devotion of Mobius to his art, his craft, his intellect. But this is also a beautiful description of the crafted writing of David Whish Wilson in this compelling first novel, The Summons.
Set in Berlin in 1934, where Himmler has established his special research unit to study the occult and European witchcraft, the novel follows the career of Dr. Paul Mobius and his darkly fascinating friend Flade. Mobius is a first world war veteran and scholar doing his research when his colleague tries to lure him to join the Special Witch Work Unit. Here, the author has delved into a chilling aspect of the Nazi regime which has not had as much coverage, except in the German language, as many other weird and wicked schemes dreamed up by this perverted crew of politicians and scientists. It is with skill that Whish Wilson delves into these operations, always keeping us very close to the characters rather than painting a wide sweep of canvas. This is intriguing and draws us deeply into their lives.
The Nazi research teams also have an unhealthy interest in young Carl, the grandson of a neighbour of Mobius. Carl is an utterly fascinating character drawn with adept skill by the author. He reminds us of Simon in the bone people [Keri Hulme, Booker Award] and like Simon, has that allure of both human and creature, a person who will not easily be manipulated by the authorities but one who also needs the care and protection of those around him. Carl seems to represent some of our inner fears and anxieties and strengths and courage. He is raw energy at work and during the book, we gradually feel closer and closer to him.
Mobius and Monika fall in love and through this, Mobius begins to confront his own past and that of his country. But Flade is always hovering nearby, wherever they go, the friend who has dark utterings and conservative tendencies. Flade is connected to the SS and eventually Mobius and Monika find themselves caught up in this despite themselves and are drawn into the dark meanderings and experimental world of the SS research units and it is clear their lives will never be the same again.
In one scene, we witness the torture of a young girl under the pretense of testing out the effects of liquid nitrogen. Her arm is dipped into the solution of liquid nitrogen and then broken off at the elbow “to shatter like glass in the trough beneath”. The girl looks at her arm, in a morphine daze, and then begins to scream. The Nazis simply consider the success of the experiment with a cold, calculating, scientific eye.
This scene is written with consummate skill and reminds us of all the other experimentations done upon indigenous people within colonial regimes, like the taking of baby Tahitian jelly fish foetuses, born malformed during the French nuclear experiments at Moruroa. The mothers never know what happens to their babies. They simply disappear. There are other tortures still happening within the Asia-Pacific region, some of which were documented at the Asia and Pacific Writer’s Conference in Melbourne in November 2005. Some of these tortures happen to writers because we dare to speak out.
We are reminded that this cold evil is not just a Nazi disease. It is a human aberration and we are all responsible if we let such experiments take place under our noses. There is no excuse these days for not knowing what is happening. The clarity of the writing begs us to ask these questions. For it is the nature of human beings at question here.
Despite the darkness of the book’s themes, the skill of David Whish Wilson draws the reader deeply into the text and we marvel, page after page, as we admire the craft of this writer. The “invisible signature of concentration and intent, and more- of love and craft, and love of craft” is evident throughout this novel as the characters draw us closer and closer to their inner secrets, as they themselves are drawn closer and closer to the heart and nerve centre of the Nazi SS research experiments. We are caught in the web, embraced by the dark wings of Flade, yet in the end, despite all, the redemptive power of love and the strength of true friendship is revealed as stronger than the forces of darkness. We witness the inner growth occurring within Mobius and we cannot fail to respond to this.
The Summons is a very powerful first novel by an author whose work is beautifully crafted. We can only eagerly await the second novel in its wake and hope this wordsmith continues to develop his craft with the artistic skill we see here. David Whish Wilson is an exciting new voice on our literary scene and we are in for a treat if his literary craft continues to flourish as this book predicts it might.
Reviewed by Dr. Cathie Dunsford