Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Today marks the last of our special looks at the finalists for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey. Let’s turn this year’s last special Kiwi spotlight on Kirsten McDougall’s Tess.
As the novel begins, Lewis Rose is driving through the rain on his way to Masterton, in the Wellington region of New Zealand’s North Island. He sees a young woman walking along the road, getting more soaked by the minute, and stops to offer her a lift. She agrees and gets in the car. They chat a little, and when they get to Masterton, Rose drops her off not far from a nearby hostel. The next day, he sees her again when a group of local thugs starts to harass her. Rose rescues her, and takes her to his home, where there’s plenty of room.
It’s soon clear that the young woman – she tells him her name is Tess – is ill, probably from an infection. Rose cares for her and gets her medical attention, and slowly, Tess gets well. As she does, she learns a bit about her host. He has two children: Jonathan has special needs and lives in a residential facility; Jean has had a rift with her father and hasn’t visited in months. Then, suddenly, Jean comes to visit. At first, she shows nothing but hostility towards Tess, drawing the obvious (but not exactly correct) conclusion about her relationship with Jean’s father. Gradually, the two get used to each other, though; and, bit by bit, Tess learns about Jean – things even her father doesn’t know.
In the meantime, Tess has her own history. When Rose picked her up, she was on the run from a very dangerous situation. She hasn’t told her hosts and keeps hoping she won’t have to do that. But the danger from her past is closer than it seems. And, in the end, Tess’ past collides with the new life she’s trying to build. When it does, there’s a real question of whether she’s going to come out of it all alive.
This novel has been called a gothic love story, and there is a touch of that in the novel. There are relationships involved, and there is the gothic-romance element of the dark past that characters don’t want to reveal. But readers who dislike romance with their crime fiction will be pleased to know that the romance part of the novel isn’t its main feature. Rather, it’s an exploration of the family, of Tess’ impact on it, and of the family’s impact on her.
There are family secrets, though, and certainly Tess has secrets. Little by little, we learn what those secrets are as the proverbial layers are pulled away. And, although it’s cliché, these secrets could tear the family completely apart. And Tess’ secrets are even more dangerous.
Because the past has such an impact in this story, it doesn’t follow a traditional chronological storyline (although the story is all told in past tense), and there are occasional flashbacks. Readers who prefer to follow a story sequentially will notice this. Those flashbacks are McDougall’s way of sharing Tess’ past with the readers, so we occasionally go back in time. That said, though, it’s not difficult to tell when a given event happened.
Another important element in the story is the set of characters. Most of the story is told from Tess’ point of view (third person), so we learn about her little by little. She is nineteen, and fiercely independent. She is unwilling to trust anyone, and with good reason, given her background. She keeps herself as private as she can, because that’s how she’s learned to survive.
The family she meets has its own issues. Rose struggles with his inability to communicate well with his children; and, although he doesn’t wallow in it, he does hurt. So do Jean and Jonathan. And all of them are coping with the loss of Rose’s wife (and the children’s mother). That, too, has left a deep scar, and more secrets.
We do find out the truths about the Rose family that have been kept hidden. And we learn Tess’ story, too. But this story doesn’t have a traditionally happy ending, where the camera pans a loving family sitting around talking. Readers who like those neatly tied-up endings will notice this. This isn’t a light, ‘easy’ novel. But redemption is a theme in the novel, and there is learning and character growth that goes on in the story.
There is some violence in the story, but readers who dislike gore will be pleased to know that the violence is more ‘offstage’ than ‘onstage.’ The suspense is much more psychological than it is anything else. There is also profanity in the book, and not just once or twice. And there are some explicit sexual references. Every reader will have a different view of how much explicitness counts as ‘too much’ and whether it’s too much in this case.
One other thing is worth noting. The novel isn’t long (my edition clocked in at 156 pages). Readers who are looking for a break from doorstop-size novels will be pleased at that. While this isn’t at all an ‘action’ novel, the pacing and timing are consistent with the length of the story.
Tess is the story of a broken family, and the impact on everyone’s life when a young woman with her own secrets becomes a part of their lives. It takes place in a distinctive New Zealand setting, and features a set of complex characters who are each keeping their own secrets. But what’s your view? Have you read Tess? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 29 October/Tuesday, 30 October – Mistakenly in Mallorca – Roderic Jeffries
Monday, 5 November/Tuesday, 6 November – Desert Heat – J.A. Jance
Monday, 12 November/Tuesday, 13 November – The Murder of My Aunt – Richard Hull