Looking for something bitingly unputdownable? An award-nominated new novel by Gigi Fenster welcomes you with horrifyingly open arms. Elsewhere, lovers of romance can discover The League of Gentleman Witches and its notable precursor, and clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo's follow-up to her personal development book, Busy as F*ck. Happy reading.
BOOKS IN REVIEW
A Good Winter by Gigi Fenster (Text, $38). Reviewed by Rebecca Hill.
Gigi Fenster's second novel, a finalist for this year's $60,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, is a short, powerful portrait of a mind on the edge. Narrator Olga is a woman in her 60s who is helping out Lara, her neighbour, as well as Lara's recently widowed daughter who has a new baby. Olga judges everyone for their inferior morals, habits and manners: "Who takes to her bed when she's got a baby? Who takes more than nine months to mourn a dead husband?"
Fenster skilfully shapes the point of view — Olga misinterpreting the world around her to fit the narrative of her own victimhood. Olga's protective nature is soon revealed as an obsession with Lara and her family and a disturbing need to control.
Lara is the main focus of a lot of Olga's thoughts, and the only person she seems to like, but Fenster keeps Olga's true feelings about Lara ambiguous, because even Olga doesn't really understand them — is Lara a mother figure or a love interest?
We glimpse Olga's early life, and at one point she longs to explain to Lara "how a family could cause a person to sicken and die. How a family could wear a person down, could sap their strength so that they don't even have the energy to escape. Or to breathe." It's evident she was unhappy as a child, but Fenster does not give us quite enough information about this. Our immersion in Olga's mind means some characters, and Olga's own backstory, get less attention. Are we supposed to believe that Olga is a damaged individual or a psychopath?
This also applies to the setting of the novel. Except for vague references to "the snow" and Christmas in summer, we do not get any information about the location. Though frustrating for readers who prefer a fuller picture of the story, it does add to the mood of stuffy containment that makes A Good Winter such a distinctive novel.
In Olga's inner monologue, she repeats things over and over in a way that feels true to someone constantly trying to convince herself she is not a villain: "Just because I once told her that I thought it was silly to have long, bright red nails made of resin. Maxine has long, bright red nails made of resin. I told Sally about Maxine's nails and I told her I thought it was ridiculous. You can't do anything with long, bright red nails made of resin."
The slow deepening of Olga's delusions may have been more effective if the book had not been marketed as a psychological thriller: we know something dark must be coming, but readers expecting the same level of action as novels like Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train may be disappointed. Some clues are perhaps too obvious. When Olga takes her anger out on the garden, she thinks: "I was cross and I wasn't being gentle with the plants. I had to be stopped before I damaged one of them. Sometimes you have to be stopped before you do some damage."
Fenster's rendering of the ending is, however, as masterful as it is horrifying. It also manages to make horrifyingly perfect sense. One particularly brilliant moment reveals just how far Olga is removed from reality and to what extent she believes her own lies. This unsettling portrayal of a disturbed mind is a cautionary tale about who our friends really are and who we let into our lives. You will be thinking about it for days after you finish, though you may never want to pick it up again.
Rebecca Hill is a New Zealand writer and translator currently living in Berlin. The winner of the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction will be announced at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards on May 11.
The pair on a mission to put a writer back in a writer's house
Bought by the public purse with the aim of creating a writer's retreat, Maurice Shadbolt's 1930s south Titirangi bungalow house stands in disrepair. Read Anne Gibson's look into the efforts to restore the vision.
Sailors, mountain climbers, movie producers … romance writers. Here is another realm in which New Zealand produces stellar talent. India Holton might be a new name to many readers, but her "rollicking" debut The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels (Jove, $24), featuring pirates and first published in the United States, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2021. That book and her second, The League of Gentleman Witches (Jove, $24) are landing in Aotearoa on April 12. Expect more to come in the "Dangerous Damsels" series.
Clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo is back with a follow-up to Busy as F*ck, her valiant attempt to wean people off the idea that "Being Busy" is some kind of Scout's badge. The Good Partner (HarperCollins, $38) tackles relationships by encouraging readers to analyse themselves rather than focusing on what annoys them about their partners. As she says: "You're the only one you can be sure of changing."
While not strictly "just out", with shipping delays continuing to cause havoc, this book may well have just landed at your favourite bookshop. In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions, $28) began as a series of lectures delivered at the University of Bologna by actress Manuela Mandracchia, taking the part of the pseudonymous Italian novelist. Of particular interest to die-hard fans will be Ferrante's exploration of how she found her distinctive voice.
FIVE QUICK QUESTIONS WITH RUTH SHAW
Running bookshops is not a big money-spinner in the best of times, and yours is remote. How have you fared during the pandemic?
My bookshops are only open for seven months of the year as Manapōuri, with a permanent population of 222, basically shuts down over winter. As I am retired, I am extremely lucky to have the absolute luxury of not needing to make an income. I pay no electricity or rent as I have a solar panel and the three bookshops are on our land. My only overhead is insurance. Lance, my versatile husband, works for free not only as a handyman but he looks after customers in the shops when I am needed elsewhere.
I thought my income would drop considerably with the lack of overseas tourists, but New Zealanders have mostly filled the gap. My wee business is stress-free, with flexible opening hours and amazing support from the Fiordland community.
Your memoir is about your life, and your life with books. What are three of your all-time favourite books and why?
I have so many favourite books that it is hard for me to select just three. The Boy, the Mole, The Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy, published in 2019, has been added to my favourites list over the last year as the more I read it, the more I love it. You fall in love with each character: the lonely wee boy, the mole who lives for cake, the fox who has been hurt by life, and the enormous gentle horse. When I worked with youth, I frequently gave them a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but now I would give them Mackesy's book as it is about friendship, courage, life and love.
The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words, by Simon Winchester, is a true story about how the Oxford English Dictionary was compiled by many researchers and philologists. One of the most prolific early contributors was William Chester Minor, a retired US Army surgeon who, for 38 years, was imprisoned for murder in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, near the village of Crowthorne. When I reach for my dictionary I often think of Minor and his brilliant mind.
Thomas Hardy - how to choose just one of his books let alone one of his poems. When a customer wants to be introduced to the classics, I generally give them a copy of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Hardy challenges the strict Victorian code on sexual morals, a very brave stand to take back in the 1890s. Maybe I was drawn to this book because of Tess being raped, her life changed in a very dramatic way, especially when she became pregnant. This is an extremely sad book, beautifully written with tenderness.
Why do you think bookshops attract such fascinating characters?
People who read and love books are generally very interesting. They analyse, ask questions and many have great stories of their own to tell. Because my three Wee Bookshops are located in such a remote town, and are painted in multiple bright colours, people who don't even read books are drawn to the door. Non-readers are often a little embarrassed as they are not going to buy a book, but their curiosity brings them into the world of books. My husband stops at every wharf to look at boats; I stop at every bookshop. Once in the door, you are in a different world.
You have started over many times. Where does your resilience come from?
My father made me stand up for myself from a young age. Honesty was important. No matter what the situation he was always up for a challenge, carrying us along with him for the ride (often a rough ride, especially for my mother).
My mother taught me to listen, to question, to believe in myself, and to dream.
In her severe but understanding way, my grandmother taught me life skills through playing cards. She was tough, straight-talking, and harsh with me. It was as though she knew my life would be full of challenges, and it was up to her to give me the skills to survive.
You say that at 75 you are still a rebel at heart. In what ways does this shine through and does it still get you in trouble?
Yes, I frequently get into trouble, many times without trying. I do not hesitate to stand up for what I believe in. I am not scared of authority. Fighting for the environment means you have to have your facts right and be well prepared for the difficult (and sometimes even stupid) questions. I always put my name to anything I write as I am confident that my research is thorough. If I believe something is wrong, I will dedicate my time and energy to challenge it.
Ruth Shaw's memoir, The Bookseller at the End of the World (Allen & Unwin, $37), is out now.