Chidgey, Catherine 1970-
CHIDGEY, Catherine 1970-
PERSONAL: Born 1970, in New Zealand.
AWARDS, HONORS: Best First Book Award, New Zealand Society of Authors, and Hubert Church Award, both 1998, and Best First Book Award, Southeast Asia/South Pacific section, Commonwealth Writers Prize, and Betty Trask Award, all 1999, all for In a Fishbone Church; Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial fellow; Todd New Writers bursary; Buddle Find-lay Sargeson fellowship; Prize in Modern Letters, 2002.
In a Fishbone Church, Victoria University Press (Wellington, New Zealand), 1998.
Golden Deeds, Victoria University Press (Wellington, New Zealand), 2000, published as The Strength of the Sun, Holt (New York, NY), 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: New Zealand writer Catherine Chidgey has received several awards for her first novel, In a Fishbone Church, including the Prize in Modern Letters established by businessman and arts philanthropist Glenn Schaeffer, at $60,000 the largest literary prize in New Zealand and Australia.
The story begins in the 1950s, takes place primarily in New Zealand, and spans three generations. When butcher Clifford Stilton dies during an outback adventure, his son Gene inherits his diaries, which he keeps hidden away under the stairs. Gene enjoys the same pursuits his father describes in his notebooks, including fishing, hunting, and fossil collecting, all of which bring up the specter of death and the past. The pages also contain notes about U.S. testing of nuclear bombs and other news of death and despair. The diaries provide Gene with a reference in living his own life as the benevolent spirit of his father continues to haunt him. Chidgey takes the reader through the lives of Gene's wife Etta and his daughters, as well, and Spectator reviewer Lisa Allardice praised her "unsentimental mental portrait of girls growing up." The critic added that "Chidgey has a good ear for dialogue, a sharp eye for an arresting image, and a wry sense of humour." As a teen, Bridget awaits Armageddon with her Christian yough group. Later, she leaves New Zealand to study in Germany. Her adopted sister, Christina, becomes a doctor and practices in Sydney, Australia.
"In a Fishbone Church tells many histories," wrote Emily Perkins in the Times Literary Supplement. "Yet the prose is always light and concise—often beautiful too, and the wry humour, while understated, is ever present. In this remarkably accomplished first novel, Catherine Chidgey steers clear of sentimentality or heavy-handedness."
Times Literary Supplement contributor Ali Smith, who praised Chidgey's debut novel for its "unexpected poetic vision," expressed similar appreciation forGolden Deeds. The book, in Smith's view, is "a witty and melancholy alchemy of heat and chill, a work of craft and fluency, which revitalizes the book in all its guises." The critic added that "for those who love books, Catherine Chidgey is a find."
Golden Deeds begins with two incidents that occur on the same day in 1988. In New Zealand, fifteen-year-old Laura disappears after setting out to watch a solar eclipse, while in England, Patrick Mercer, a rare manuscript curator, makes the decision to leave his wife while watching the eclipse on television. The story develops out of the connection between the two seemingly disconnected people.
In a Los Angeles Times review, Merle Rubin wrote that "deftly, in an almost painterly fashion, Chidgey arranges her images and themes in a balanced, aesthetically pleasing composition." Rubin noted that "as a child, Patrick believes that fireflies are spelling out messages. In the museum, he marvels at the intricacy of the illuminations blending word and picture, the resiliency of the inks and parchments that provide a window into the medieval world." Patrick detects the signs that the pages were made from animal skins—"There was a flesh side and a hair side to any page of parchment"—and the observation is made that the spines of books represent the backbones of living beasts.
More than ten years pass, and Colette Hawkins, a young woman living in New Zealand, begins receiving letters from a group in England that calls itself Friends of Patrick Mercer. Patrick is in a coma, and the group is providing updates of his condition to all the friends listed in his address book, except that Colette doesn't know him. Because her curiosity is piqued, Colette has the letters forwarded to her when she moves to another part of the country to attend college. Ironically, she rents a room in the first home of Malcolm and Ruth Pearse, the parents of Laura, who have moved out and are renting to students. Colette also becomes babysitter to Daniel, the son they had after Laura's disappearance.
Gary Krist, reviewing Golden Deeds's U.S. edition, titled The Strength of the Sun, for the New York Times Book Review, wrote that "objects and documents are never just stage props in this novel. They function more like forensic evidence, markers left behind by the dead, the lost, or the emotionally absent as proof of their existence." Krist concluded that "as in a piece of music, motifs keep resurfacing, slightly transformed each time (like the sun of the book's title, whose rays appear at different points either eclipsed by the moon or else intensified by the lense of a magnifying glass, and to disastrous effect in both cases). In combination, the disparate elements of Chidgey's novel create a dense and multifaceted whole, an arresting portrait of a world where the past never disappears entirely, but keeps returning to us—however imperfectly—in countless small and unexpected ways."
A Kirkus Reviews contributor called The Strength of the Sun "an intricate and mysterious account of several people . . . whose lives become intertwined through fate, happenstance, and human error." A Publishers Weekly writer called the second novel a "spellbinding take on 'six degrees of separation.'" Booklist's Neal Wyatt called The Strength of the Sun "a finely crafted tale," while Library Journal's Maureen Neville felt that the story's "ominous undertone shows how loss tends to frame a person's life."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, February 1, 2002, Neal Wyatt, review of TheStrength of the Sun, p. 921.
Choice, July, 1999, S. Raeschild, review of In a Fishbone Church, p. 1942.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2002, review of TheStrength of the Sun, p. 7.
Library Journal, January, 2002, Maureen Neville, review of The Strength of the Sun, p. 149.
Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2002, Merle Rubin, review of The Strength of the Sun, p. E3.
New York Times Book Review, May 19, 2002, Gary Krist, review of The Strength of the Sun, p. 8.
Observer (London, Endgland), February 14, 1999, Joanna Griffiths, review of In a Fishbone Church, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly, February 4, 2002, review of TheStrength of the Sun, p. 50.
Spectator, March 20, 1999, Lisa Allardice, review of In a Fishbone Church, p. 70.
Times Literary Supplement, January 15, 1999, Emily Perkins, review of In a Fishbone Church, p. 22; September 15, 2000, Ali Smith, review of Golden Deeds, p. 23.*