Reviewed by STELLA
Tess by Kirsten McDougall is a finely crafted novel that hooks you from the moment you meet the young woman hitch-hiking her way into small-town New Zealand. Tess is uneasy, troubled by something and wary of anyone that tries to help her. When Lewis, a middle-aged dentist, picks her up, he is distinctly wary too - he doesn’t wish to be seen as predatory. It’s raining and the young woman on the side of the road is soaked and reminds him of his daughter who he’s recently had a falling out with. Lewis is also dealing with his own grief and loneliness. His mother is in an old folks' home and doesn’t recognise him, although occasionally asking after his pretty wife, unknowingly rubbing salt into a wound. Lewis’s wife was the victim of an accidental death, one we learn later in the book has disrupted his family and made their lives unbearable for several years with secrets, blame and guilt. When Lewis ends up inadvertently looking after Tess, who becomes briefly ill with a fever, each of their lives is affected by the other. Both are lost and running from pain in their own way. Lewis needs to find a way back to his adult children, to rebuild his relationships with them, ease his way back into life rather than an alcohol-dulled semblance of one. Tess needs to face herself and her own secrets and fears. The novel is described as a "gothic love story", and there is an unusual element to this tale of relationships. Tess has an inherited supernatural power which she finds a curse as well as a curiosity. In the hands of a less able writer, this would have felt forced or unbelievable, but McDougall weaves this aspect into the novel convincingly and without guile. As Lewis and Tess muddle along, we are drawn into their stories, each revealed piece by piece through the conversation between the characters, flashbacks and observation. Life moves into a calm pattern, one in which Tess gardens and rights the neglected home and Lewis is relieved of his loneliness. There are times when the relationship is almost derailed, yet somehow they find the companionship or safety they need. So, just as everything seems to be running smoothly until Lewis’s tumultuous daughter, Jean, arrives on the scene and all turns on its head. Confrontations on various levels arise, between daughter and father; between the guest, Tess, and Jean; and Tess’s past catches up with her. This a novel about vulnerability, about women and power (or lack of it), about how anger can take you in the wrong direction yet also empower you to make the right choices and be courageous. McDougall writes convincingly, edging you closer to the truth: here is an observation of love, of surviving and of letting go of hurt. It’s also a novel of surprises - definitely worth delving into.