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Tess by Kirsten McDougall

From the opening paragraph on a steaming road to the end of this remarkable novel, the reader is entranced by the story of its central character Tess.

Through her brilliantly descriptive language Kirsten McDougall deftly weaves a compelling tale of love and loss which effortlessly moves between the past and present.

First we see the world through the eyes of Lewis whose compassion, hurt and need are carefully expressed to keep the reader on side. He is – or he at least appears to be from the outset – one of the good guys.

When the perspective shifts to Tess, we see not only her innate physic ability, but also her suspicion of all men, even when faced with open-handed kindness. The universality of her position is underscored by rapidly unfolding events.

As the two central characters form a strongly satisfying bond and increasing mutual dependence, it is clear that this is not a conventional love story. Their ages and differences are subtly manifested against a backdrop of mystery and intrigue.

Both Tess and Lewis have suffered deep loss and abandonment and the reader begins to attach to a desire for both to have a happy outcome. Just when at last it seems possible for them to bring each other an unconventional healing through domestic contentment, tension returns in the form of the Lewis’s rebel daughter Jean who is full of hatred.

Once again Tess’s essential goodness looks like it will triumph over the fractiousness of family relationships into which she has unwittingly stumbled. The reader sighs with relief as a happy ending draws in sight.

Or does it?

I absolutely loved this book from the get go. It is both quintessentially Kiwi and universally themed; but above all it is an exceptionally well written and compelling short novel.

Reviewer: Petra Stavelli

Victoria University Press