A Good Winter, Gigi Fenster
The second non-fiction book from New Zealand writer, Gigi Fenster, A GOOD WINTER is a story of a group of women, after Lara moves to the city to be near her widowed, pregnant daughter. Sophie really starts to struggle after Michael is born, her grief compounded by post-natal depression. The city apartment block Lara has moved to was already home to Olga, and their friendship commences with the simplest of things - Olga's green fingers and Lara's uncanny ability to kill all sorts of pot plants, moving quickly to something closer when Sophie's crisis draws them together, as Olga steps in to care for Sophie and Michael when Lara can't.
But Sophie is increasingly hopeless with Michael, and to be honest, seems like more than a bit of attention soak, so Olga's calm competence seems to be exactly what Lara and Sophie need - to keep their own sanity and their relationship on an even keel. What mother and daughter don't seem to notice is that Olga is deeply jealous of Sophie and Michael's place in her new friend's life. The reader, on the other hand, is acutely aware of Olga's viewpoint - she takes the place of the first-person narrator of A GOOD WINTER which makes for a very discomforting experience. Olga's unhinged, Sophie is somebody that enjoys hopelessness too much, and Lara's simply not able to set the sort of boundaries her daughter (and Olga for that matter) desperately need.
Claustrophobic and very disconcerting, A GOOD WINTER seems to be pitched at maximum discomfort level, with all sorts of perceived slights, unintended meanings and over-reactions designed to conflate Olga's position in her own mind. She's obviously an unreliable narrator, but it's also pretty clear she's dangerous as well. Sophie is, not to put too fine a point on it, a drama queen of the highest order, and despite the reader seeing everything from Olga's skewed viewpoint, somebody that it was really easy to dislike intensely. Meanwhile Lara seems like a victim walking right from the start - before Olga starts to become increasingly fixated, before Olga works up a head of steam about her and Sophie's friends, before the inevitable happens.
A couple of things on form - for reasons which are never clear to me, this is another one of those novels that forgoes quote marks for speech. It also use repetition as a narrative technique. The former for reasons that escaped this reader, the latter adding to the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, creating an odd feeling of flight or fight as Olga's obsession and weirdness got more and more pronounced. A reaction supported by the fact that these are all deeply unpleasant people, making a connection tricky for a reader, who is instantly caught up in a game of "who's worse" which spins around at a truly breathtaking pace.
A GOOD WINTER is an intense, discomforting, uncomfortable novel (on purpose), and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see readers reacting with praise or repulsion and not a lot in the middle-ground.
When Olga’s friend Lara becomes a grandmother, Olga helps out whenever she can. After all, it’s a big imposition on Lara, looking after her bereaved daughter and the baby. And the new mother is not exactly considerate.
But smoldering beneath Olga’s sensible support and loving generosity is a deep jealous need to be the centre of Lara’s attention and affection—a need that soon becomes a consuming, dangerous and ultimately tragic obsession.