What I liked, a great deal, about Kirsten McDougall’s first book – The Invisible Rider (a set of connected short stories, not quite a novel, not just a novella…) was the way she painted the world. All at once daring but not flashy. Taking time to shape descriptions, allowing the world – a fictional twist on a real, known place – to slowly reveal itself. The same is true with Tess – this time a novel, but again slight, almost novella-length (and all the better for it). Where Invisible Rider took place in a then contemporary Wellington for Tess we’re over the hill to Masterton – and back in time to the turning of the millennium.
Tess is a troubled teen, she has a gift though. There’s something instantly filmic about the way this story unfolds, about the way McDougall frames it. And in the ever-so-slightly supernatural mood (and theme) as much to remind that this is fiction and so fictional things can and will happen in a version of reality that is otherwise gritty and grounded, I thought of Stephen King. And of the soon-returning Netflix hit, Stranger Things.
Like many of King’s (best) books Tess starts off about one relationship and then moves to explore another. Our troubled teen, our not-quite-but-then-eventual hero gets a ride by 45 year old Lewis. He’s troubled. And Tess has some insight into troubles. And then some further insight on top of that. Lewis saves her – more than once. But he’s in need of saving too.
His twins are somewhat removed, his wife has died, his garden’s a mess.
Tess can help. In at least some areas.
And as this world slowly, evocatively comes into being – McDougall’s chief writing skill is in never being flashy but in making the words still sparkle – we turn pages with increasing speed, curious of the tension between Tess and Lewis, between Lewis and the world, between Tess and…well…everyone.
It’s not fair to reveal too much more. It is crucial to point out that in just 150 pages a lot happens – a lot is suggested, there’s something profoundly feminist about Tess too, the book and the character. It’s a subtle shape-shifter of a story, there’s a gentle, purposeful usurping that occurs, a tonal shift that can be read as a strong statement. The way the plot is built, then shifted, then built again is deft and wonderfully deceptive.
And I could imagine Tess as a movie – from opening to closing page. I was anticipating the shades and shapes, determining the score (Jakob, by the way) and imagining it would sit somewhere between The Changeover and Rain. A perfect place (for it) to be.