Tess by Kirsten McDougall.
Wellington: VUP (2017).
RRP: $25. Pb, 156pp.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
Kirsten McDougall’s short novel, Tess, is her second publication after a collection of interconnected short stories entitled The Invisible Rider (2012).
At the turn into the 21th century, in Masterton, Wairarapa, where ‘Sheep and cows [dot] the grass like a scattershot of ornaments’ (p 14), we commence our journey on ‘a Sunday evening in early Spring’ (p 16).
Middle-aged Lewis Rose’s car stalls as he considers offering a lift to a wet and bedraggled figure, and he winds down the window – ‘I’m going to Masterton if you want a lift.’ 19 year-old Tess ‘peered in … He felt it as she looked – a pure intelligent animal intent – but he couldn’t read her in return … It was as if she was below the surface of him, looking through him the way he’d search a water hole before diving in’ (p 10). We learn that Tess has powers – she is a seer of past events and memories – and she can feel Lewis Rose is ‘desperate for company, for anyone’ (p 13).
Eventually Rose directs Tess to a hostel but en route she is accosted by four men: ‘… she could smell them, stale beer, sour sebum, oversweet scent of pot’ (p 20). Fortunately, Rose returns and rescues her, explaining, ‘Look, I have rooms to spare at my house. Rooms. Just take one… I don’t mean you any harm’ (p 23).
Tess’ first few days at Rose’s comfortable house find her consumed with a terrible fever and she can do nothing but lie in bed, Rose’s dog, Toby, beside her – her constant companion. Out of a bout of delirium comes her back story and, as she recovers, Lewis Rose’s story starts to unfold also. Tess’ strange, oracular ability tells us a lot; the author also gives us a God’s-eye view, and thoughts in italics. In places I yearned for less telling and more showing, finding the writing occasionally wordy and verging on sentimental.
When Jean, Lewis Rose’s daughter, returns home, all becomes complicated; everyone has secrets, is angry, harmed and/or needy. Do the increasing cast of characters feed off each other? Will Jean and or Tess cause trouble, as we suspect? Can Tess, Lewis and Jean stop their running? Will the world change or end for them at the turn of the millennium? Do not despair, there is deep happiness and some fun within the pages too. However, joy may be short-lived in lives scarred by trauma and regret.
Tess has been described as a ‘gothic love story’. In my opinion it reads more like a murder mystery – well-paced, often moody, reflecting its characters’ vulnerabilities and complexities. It is a novella wherein each chapter reads like a complete short story. One of its strengths is its pace and suspense which allows its parts to add up to more than its whole. The one constant is the wonderful dog, Toby, who you long to pat as the suspense increases. Tess is a remarkably brave and probing first novel about relationships and trauma, about a curious phenomenon – of observing others’ memories through their eyes. VUP has produced an attractive book that I think will really appeal to young adult readers.
Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to Me, Swings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies, and has judged competition poetry.