Monday, August 7, 2017

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“TESS” by Kirsten McDougall (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)

Sometimes, reviewing newly-published novels is like entering a boxing ring with one arm tied behind your back. The impact of a novel is its total impact – how it reads from beginning to end. But with newly-published novels, there is a well-established (and perfectly justifiable) convention that reviewers should not give away essential developments of the plot which the author means to come as a surprise to readers. Tess has such developments. They colour the way I read this brisk and short (c.150 pages) novel, but I will stick to the convention. Of which more later.

Nearly five years ago on this blog, I had the great pleasure of reviewing Wellington-based writer Kirsten McDougall’s first novel The Invisible Rider, with its interesting mixture of dream, reverie and hope as it gave, in vignettes, the life of a decent suburban chap. Now comes her second novel, Tess, but it is a very different production. I would not go so far as the blurb, which calls it a “gothic love story” but, with its tragic backstories and its scenes of extreme emotion, it tends somewhere in that direction.

On a rainy and miserable day, Lewis, a 45-year-old dentist with a small-town (Masterton) practice, picks up a hitchhiker, a taciturn 19-year-old woman who takes a long time to say much and to give her name as Tess. She is obviously running away from something, but she will not say what. After helping her escape the unwelcome attentions of a bunch of local yobbos, Lewis takes Tess back to his own home, and they set about sharing the same house.

We soon discover that Lewis is a man going through a complex sort of grieving. His wife apparently died in some sort of accident; his old mother is Altzheimic and doesn’t recognise him when he visits her in the nursing home; and for reasons that take a long time to emerge, he is alienated from his daughter Jean, who has run away. As for Tess, it’s clear she had a troubled childhood and was brought up by her eccentric grandmother Sheila after her mother abandoned her. It’s something more recent that has set her on the run, apparently to do with an abusive relationship, but that is made clear too late in the novel for me to reveal it here.

Kirsten McDougall’s skill in the first half of the novel is the subtle way she dramatises the tension between these two lost souls. Lewis is not a sexual predator and has not picked up a young hitchhiker to exploit her. He genuinely wants to help, but he is also lonely and needs the company. Occasionally he feels sentimental about the young woman, and once he almost crosses a line, but he draws himself back with the thought that she’s about the same age as his absent daughter. Tess is quite capable of looking after herself, but is aware of this sexually-charged tension. It is the tension of a middle-aged man and a younger woman sharing the same space without really cohabiting.

Then Lewis’s daughter Jean comes back – a bitter, abusive and angry young woman – and the whole shape of the novel changes.

The backstories of both Tess and Lewis are revealed in flashbacks. Another skill of McDougall’s is capturing the child’s-eye-view of the world when Tess was living with her grandmother. Take, for example, this precise and detailed description of the way the child Tess reacts to a horse:

The horse came closer and her mother held the apple on a flat palm, offering it. Tess watched the horse turn its head to the side and open its big horse lips to show its teeth, which looked like old man’s fingernails, large and yellowed. The horse wrapped its meaty tongue around the apple and pulled it into its mouth in one piece. It crunched down and small pieces of apple iced with long threads of saliva fell from its mouth as it chewed. Her mother ran her hand over the long bone of is nose. It seemed to Tess that its face was mainly made up of its nose. Rose [Tess’s mother] asked Tess if she wanted to do the same. Tess looked at the horse’s eyes, large and shiny globes, andthought she did want to touch it, but then it spluttered from its nostrils and shook its head and Tess said no.” (p.28)

The mixed fascination and fear of a child is captured perfectly here.

At about the midway point, however, there are two surprises, both of which I’m bound to leave vague for the reason I’ve already given. One has to do with paranormal powers. The other has to do with the sexual relationship of two characters. The paranormal powers really does take us into “gothic” territory – or at least some distance from the realism we thought we were appreciating. The sexual relationship develops credibly enough, but is sprung upon us so suddenly, and without any real build-up, that it comes close to shock value. And, in both flashbacks and in the linear present, much violence enters the story. In fact, the past complications of both Tess and Lewis are laid on in extreme form.

Finishing Tess, I felt like a tired rugby commentator, waiting to say it’s “a novel of two halves”. Of McDougall’s clear and precise prose style there is no doubt. She can create a vivid scene and make us aware of how characters are feeling by their actions and way of speaking. But the transition from one sort of tale to another does not quite work. In the end, as she wanders off, Tess has become more of a redemptive fantasy figure than the real young woman she began as.

Other readers may be able to reconcile the two halves more easily than I can.

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