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Review: Remote Sympathy, by Catherine Chidgey

Attention, readers: we have another entry in the (continually further lengthening!) list of potentially best books of 2022.

This book tore my heart into a million little pieces and then gleefully stomped on it while I sobbed hideously on my couch and ignored my dinging emails. It is, very briefly (I don't want to say too much because of ~spoilers~), a story about World War II, the Holocaust, medicine, and the interweaving stories of three people in and around Buchenwald, and how the dynamics of their relationships to each other are determined by the power disparities and balances between them, their histories, and of course the horrific, horrendous nature of where they are.

Dietrich Hahn is the administrative commander of Buchenwald; his wife Greta has ovarian cancer; and Lenard Weber is a doctor who, before the war, designed a machine that he thinks can cure cancer using electric waves to manipulate the electric circuits in the body. His wife is Jewish, and so both her and their daughter are deported and he spends the years of the war under a cloud of suspicion, which enables Dietrich Hahn to have him forcibly arrested and sent to Buchenwald when he finds out about Weber's research and thinks it can cure his wife's cancer without his wife having to have operations and treatment that would result in her being infertile (because all he cares about is that his wife survives and can continue to have his babies. Can you tell how much I hate Dietrich?).

This book is very, very, very good. Not going to lie, the subject matter itself is very grim and in some passages excessively graphic - there's a lot of narrative talk about what happened in Buchenwald and Dietrich's direct involvement in it, and those passages did turn my stomach. But Dietrich is a wonderfully well-written villain - every time he becomes larger than life, horrifically grotesque for his actions in the camp and his treatment of his sick wife and troubled son, Chidgey writes a scene or gives him a line of dialogue that adds a shade of nuance to his character. I won't go so far to say that he is a shades-of-gray villain, or not all bad (he's a concentration camp officer and Chidgey makes it very clear that nothing about that can be redeemed, nor should we be seeking his redemption) - but the parts of the novel that take place inside his head are, I think, the best-written ones.

The story of Lenard Weber's invention and the tragedy of his family are also beyond compelling and gripping, and it's a testament to Chidgey's storytelling that the chapters taking place in someone else's POV never felt like wasted space between the instalments of Weber's story itself.

There's a lot packed into this book, and Catherine Chidgey needs all 525 pages of her novel to do it - some of the early chapters could, I think, have been trimmed or edited, since the first 100-170 pages are very much scene-setting and context-building - but all told, I did not feel like the book dragged or was long. When I put it down after finishing it (and after sobbing very, very heavily, as mentioned above) I did not think that any of my reading time had been wasted or not adequately utilised.

Basically, I highly highly recommend this book - but do be warned, you will be disturbed and heartcrushed. Bring on the catharsis.

Happy reading,

Amélie xx

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I’m Amélie, I love books and reading, and I also love talking about them.

I’m incredibly lucky to be bilingual, so I read books in both French and English, and will talk about both of those on here – although I will do more in English, since I know that’s probably what the majority of the people who ever find this blog will be interested in!

I also like history, traveling, Shakespeare, coffee, cheese, musicals, Italian Baroque art, the ballet, Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You, flowers, makeup, high heels, and baking. Yes, I’m a walking cliché. I am aware.

Please do tweet at me with any suggestions/book recommendations/thoughts.

In case you’re curious – yes, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time.

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