Review: Tess by Kirsten McDougall

This review was first published on The Spinoff on 7 September 2017.

Tess

There’s something about the Wairarapa. Big skies. Beautiful old villas. Close-knit communities, with a pointy edge of small town meanness. There’s also something about the dying days of 1999, that strange, tense moment before we ticked over into the 21st century, when just for a moment it felt like the world might end.

Perfect time and place to set a gothic novel. So we’re on a country road just outside of Masterton, in the rain, a few weeks before the end of 1999 when Wellington writer Kirsten McDougall opens Tess, her second book. Tess is 19, on the run from something, living out of a pack, not eating much and about to fall drastically ill. Lewis Rose, the local dentist, picks her up and gives her a ride into town, where she gets hassled by some errant youths on the street. Lewis intervenes and takes her home to one of those beautiful villas under the big sky. Beautiful, yes, but dusty and disheveled and the garden has run wild. There’s something not right about the garage.

Tess has inherited a curious family gift – the ability to see flashes of what other people are thinking or feeling – and when she looks at Lewis she sees nothing good. His nest is empty. His wife has died in what appears to be a tragic accident. His twin children, about Tess’ age, are conspicuously absent. For some reason, people don’t want him to check their teeth anymore. He’s desperately lonely and sad. He makes a clumsy and almost inevitable pass at Tess, but they recover, and settle into quiet companionship and mutual support. Tess, though, can’t help but go digging into what’s happened to leave Lewis so damaged.

There’s a filmic quality about McDougall’s writing. It’s highly visual and evocative of place and time, and also tightly plotted. It feels like watching a New Zealand film circa 1999, one with a soundtrack by Neil Finn or Don McGlashan, lots of rain and an unfolding family tragedy. Actually, I hope they make that film. It would be good. There’s the dramatic entrance of a new character (Lewis’ daughter Jean) at the halfway point, a surprising change of direction, and a tense denouement on New Year’s Eve worthy of being played out on screen.

Perhaps because it took me back to my own feelings as a teenager in the late 1990s, it also reminded me of reading young adult fiction. It comes in at a slight 150 pages, almost a novella really, but it is, in the words of James Baldwin, as clean as a bone. I would have gobbled it up and loved it at 17.

My only complaint is this: when his livewire daughter Jean shows up at about the halfway point, Lewis, our poor dentist, fades into the background. Up until this point the story is of the evolving trust between Tess and Lewis, of the two of them helping each other to recover from trauma in their own silent ways. I wanted more of this, but it’s as though Lewis is blasted out of the way by his charismatic daughter. She takes up all the space. I liked her too, but I missed Lewis, and it felt like the understanding building between Tess and Lewis was cut off at the pass.

But this is a small gripe. Tess is compelling and neatly executed. It’s a testament to McDougall’s skill that she seamlessly integrates the supernatural in the form of Tess’ “gift” into what is otherwise a resolutely realist aesthetic. Tess’s impressions from others and her responses to them are completely plausible, and deepen the meaning that we as readers can draw from the characters.

Meanwhile, the device reminds us of one of the purposes of reading and writing – to see the world the way that others do, to empathise with those who are not like us, and to come to understand that even when we gain this insight, we might not always know what to do with it.