I Wish, I Wish by Zirk Van Den Berg
I Wish, I Wish is a novella – a short novel. Nevertheless, a lot happens in its pages. Seb is a mortician who seems emotionally half dead himself. Though he does feel, he doesn’t always know how to express his feelings, even in his own thoughts. With a wife who has become increasingly alien to him, and teenagers who won’t come out of their rooms, Seb has drawn deep into himself. He feels more comfortable in his mortuary, where he can reconstruct the faces of the dead for family viewings, than he does with the living.
The story takes a turn when one day, a young boy with a terminal illness comes into the funeral home and asks Seb to explain what will happen to his body when he dies. After letting the boy lie in a coffin, Seb becomes inexplicably attached to Gabe.
Gabe tells him a story in passing about a man who was given three wishes. The next day, after two strange happenings, Seb comes to a conclusion – somehow, after talking to Gabe, he has ended up being given three wishes. He’s used two of them without knowing their power, and now he has one left. As he loses his job, his wife leaves him for her best friend who he cynically wished would win the lottery, and he tries to navigate life with his children whom he no longer knows, the thought of that magical third wish forces Seb to re-examine the man he is, and what he really wants. It becomes a lifeline and a reason to go on when everything else is falling apart.
Seb fits into a trope of the middle-aged man who has become disconnected from his life and his desires, and tries to reconnect with his family and the world around him. The way the story is told is both original and drily humourous. At times, characters like Seb’s wife and her lover, the annoying Rhonda, seem to be out of a telenovela. At other times, as Seb lies in bed with his wife and feels terrified to reach out and touch her, so wide has the gulf grown between them, the story feels deep and human. If he reaches out, however she reacts, the consequences might be ‘unbearable. So, the best thing was to do nothing at all.’ At times the prose becomes lyrical, hovering on that knife-edge of fantasy that I Wish, I Wish walks across, but doesn’t quite tip into: ‘In Seb’s dreams, the breaths of the past clung to him like a grey beard that flowed past his chin and over his chest down to his knees. The breaths of the future hovered above, angels dancing on tiptoe’.
Though born in South Africa, author Zirk Van Den Berg now lives in Auckland and translates his own work as well as that of other writers. I Wish, I Wish was originally published in Afrikaans and won a South African fiction writing award.
Berg’s other work includes thrillers, which might go some way towards explaining the brilliant though brief grave-robbing scene. I Wish, I Wish is part fairy tale. Or perhaps you would call it speculative fiction. Regardless of its genre, it is one of those books that causes you to re-examine your own thoughts and desires when you lift your eyes from the page. Definitely one of the most interesting books I have read this year, and in subject matter and the narrative voice, it is refreshingly different.
Reviewer: Susannah Whaley
The Cuba Press