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Tess by Kirsten McDougall – book review

Kirsten McDougall: deftly handles mainstream fiction tropes. Photo/Grant Maiden

Masterton gets a Gothic tale to call its own in a gripping novella about a troubled teen.

A Gothic love story set in Masterton? Why not – Ronald Hugh Morrieson did it in Hawera and Danyl Mclauchlan does it in the Aro Valley (though the architecture gives him a head start there).

Kirsten McDougall’s novella gets straight into things. It’s 1999 and troubled teen Tess, unwashed for a week, is in escape mode from predatory violence. She’s picked up by a decent, bereft dentist, old enough to be her … etc, etc. Half an hour later, he picks her up again. This time, he holds a rifle.

Chill, reader. Lewis means well, in his bruised way. He becomes the protector who needs protecting. Idyll and horror start to alternate through a short hot summer. We flick from a perfect and peaceful swimming hole to bodies hanging in the garage or sprawled with shattered skull on the ground.

Multiple cans of worms open. There are revelations plural. A daring if not entirely credible love affair begins. So does a tenuous happiness. Numerous people from the past reappear, including vividly rendered, flawless Jean, whom you’ll want to smack; glacial Dr Alan, whom you’ll want to kick; and damaged Jonti, whom you’ll want to watch closely. Events charge to a lurid ending, where the rifle makes another appearance and the mainly good don’t end all that buoyantly.

So, plenty happens, including shit. McDougall packs a lot into a small compass. The Gothic bits? Partly it’s the intermittent ultra-violence. Partly it’s the fact that Tess has second sight. And partly it’s a heavy-breathing style, where fleeting glances are packed with portent, and a character’s eyes are “glassy … darker, cold, … evil” and/or “hidden behind the dark metal door of a safe”. Cranking-up noises are audible. And McDougall does insist on telling us rather a lot.

But she handles the more mainstream fiction tropes damn well. She picks effectively at knotted relationships. Tess is authentically, affectingly abrasive and vulnerable. The physical world is alive and jumping, and the narrative never lets go of your throat.

So Wairarapa noir, or maybe dark purple. Now wait for somebody’s Fendalton farce. That one might not be fiction, of course.

TESS, by Kirsten McDougall (VUP, $25)

This article was first published in the October 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.