The Intentions Book by Gigi Fenster
Gigi Fenster has made a standout debut with her novel, The Intentions Book. The writing is tight, the protagonist memorable and the revelations stitched with a subtle finesse.
Morris Goldberg's daughter Rachel may or may not be missing in the bush. The return time she wrote in the Department of Conservation's intentions book does not match the time she gave her brother in her detailed tramping plan. If the tramper does not get back by the return time it is, as we are told, panic time.
Morris waits it out with his son, David, and his dead wife's sister.
The waiting time accrues its own understandable tension, but what transforms the novel into something special is the way the present keeps catapulting Morris back into the past.
Unable to let the voice of his wife go, Sadie insists he looks at the past differently. The novel, then, is a test of memory. There is the inevitable shortfall when things do not measure up. There are the poignant moments. There is the removal of rose filters and the slow recognition of a different self and family history.
Countless episodes lingered in my mind when I had finished reading.
The vulnerability of beloved memories is epitomised in the blueberry story. Sadie had called the family to come "quickly" to taste her childhood in the punnet of berries she had extravagantly bought in the supermarket. The children spat them out in disgust, spitting out not just the bitter fruit but also the sweetness of her childhood memory. A double waste.
Fenster writes with a deft and lovely hand. She takes a motif such as the blueberries and lets it twist and coil within a single anecdote and then reverberate throughout the story.
There is the issue of touch. Morris does not like to be touched. This revelation begins with the sight of the shawl he gave his wife around the shoulders of his sister-in-law. The sister-in-law is rebuking him for not touching his wife, for not welcoming a family embrace. Morris is reminded of the sight of a man touching the departing back - a padded jacket - of an indifferent woman. Morris, by way of Sadie's voice in his head, keeps returning to the issue.
Particularly poignant are the trips back to Morris the boy - to the architecture of his house and his relations with his parents. We keep returning to the night before father and son are about to go tramping and each time we get to see the pain a little differently.
Poignant, too, are the preparations Morris makes with his daughter before their tramping trips: the detailed planning, the scrupulous lists, the camaraderie, the serious focus. With his daughter missing, Morris is excavating the past in order to ascertain the degree to which he knows her.
Fenster has told the story of Morris in a way that is quiet, powerful, original. Victoria University Press has launched an author who is like a breath of fresh air.
Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.