A Good Winter by Gigi Fenster
Prizes in literature are tending to be awarded based upon brilliant writing, unusual structure or an originality of narration. It seems the Michael Gifkins Prize is no different as the award winner from 2020 - A Good Winter by Gigi Fenster - ticks all those boxes. Told completely in monologue form, the reader is completely penned in with the world of Olga and away from whom we are never given any kind of insight - much to the chagrin of the reader.
Fenster is a quality writer who has released two previous publications - a novel and a memoir - but it is this manuscript that caught the attention of the judging panel.
As readers, the positioning of the narrative in Olga’s mindset is unsettling as an understatement. The book is pitched in the crime genre and a ‘psychological thriller’; however, it is more the unsettling aspect that drives this psychological approach. Her perspective of others seems to be completely displaced as she struggles to see positives in literally every person she encounters - including those in her own close family. It appears that she constantly looks for the motives of actions in others, rather than anything of positivity. This certainly is an intriguing style of writing - and superbly executed, but at the same time a challenging read - perhaps exacerbated by the social environment in which we all exist in Auckland right now.
Enter Lara, the only friend of Olga, and the one upon whom the narrative revolves. It seems that our protagonist sees her as the one thing in the world whose connection she must retain at any cost. And it is the story of Lara’s daughter, Sophie, and Sophie’s own child. Unfortunately, Sophie’s partner passed away soon after the baby was born leaving her with a fairly challenging level of post-natal depression which, of course, Olga sees as a wallowing of self-pity.
From Olga’s perspective, this child should not be the duty of her older friend, Lara. Instead, it should be a mother’s job to care for her own child. Olga’s frustration fills pages of monologue throughout the text as she laments the behaviour of Sophie. Even Olga’s brother who, to everyone else it seemed, is attacked in her monologue. For Olga, the support she gives to Lara sets her up as a kind of hero for the whole situation. And, indeed, it does appear that Lara does come to rely on her friendship - even when it seems that Sophie is on the mend from her (totally understandable for the reader) post-natal affliction.
The manuscript was rewritten for the competition after an early attempt by Fenster who, in an interview on the topic, made a comment about the challenge in writing as Olga and the depressive nature of her outlook. There is a desperation to the whole text that the reader cannot emerge from. A claustrophobic view of the world through the eyes of this difficult character.
On the cover is a quote from Loraine Peck that ‘Nothing will prepare you for the end’. Perhaps the ending is not as one may predict, but there are definite signals along the way to hint at the outcome.
There is no doubt about the quality of the writing and the ingenuity of the writer. It is brilliantly constructed, the short sentence structure and the diction choice are highly effective narratological attributes and provide a clear level of characterisation, albeit limited to the one character. However, it is a difficult read trying to sustain the onslaught of hopelessness as narrative develops over the course of the text. As the narrative unfolds it is, however, challenging to find any respite from the frustrated diatribe that Olga spouts towards everyone and anyone.
Reviewer: Chris Reed