A Good Winter by Gigi Fenster (Text Publishing, 2021), 272 pp, $38
By the end of the first paragraph of Gigi Fenster’s gripping novel, we know something is amiss. ‘It was a good winter’, her narrator, Olga, tells us. ‘For me it was a good winter. For Lara even. I don’t care what anyone says. The facts spoke for themselves.’ But as with Dickens, after the memorable opening of A Tale of Two Cities, the spring of hope turns into a winter of, if not despair, then foolishness and darkness. Relentlessly, inexorably, the tension implicit in this first defensive statement builds into a portrait of obsessive neediness (‘I’m not needy’, Olga says repeatedly) that drives the plot to its horrific ending on the very last page. That Fenster never slackens the pace or signposts exactly who will pay the price for her narrator’s deranged thinking is a credit to the author’s hold on the storyline and an indication of her unflagging allegiance to the manipulative, delusional and utterly awful nature of her main character.
Fenster wrote A Good Winter with funding from the Todd New Writer’s Bursary and Creative New Zealand, received in 2012. She put it aside until seven years later, when she entered the manuscript in the Michael Gifkins Prize for an unpublished novel. The book, Fenster’s third novel, won this award in 2020 and made the shortlist for the Jann Medlicott Acorn prize for fiction in this year’s Ockham awards. Appropriately billed as a ‘psychological thriller’, the ‘good winter’ of the title is the rare few months when Olga—middle-aged, lonely, deeply flawed—experiences something close to friendship, something akin to love. And she holds on to it for dear life.
At the beginning of the book Olga has befriended Lara, the warm-hearted solo mother who lives in the apartment upstairs. Lara’s daughter Sophie has a new baby son, born just six months after his father’s death, and has taken to her bed with a diagnosis of post-natal depression. When Lara takes time off work to care for her daughter and new grandson, she is supported by the seemingly friendly and endlessly available Olga.
But cracks in Olga’s amenable demeanour soon appear, to the reader at least. Brick by brick, Olga tries to build a wall to isolate Lara and Sophie from their network of friends—‘silly girls’, she calls them—and so claim a place in Lara’s affections that will be hers and hers alone: ‘Lara needed me that winter. Because what none of them saw, not Sophie in her bed or Nancy with her cleaning, or those friends with their soup and their flowers. What none of them saw was that Lara also needed looking after.’ As the winter months roll on, she assumes this role with a growing ferocity: ‘Sometimes I’d feel like I was in one of those arcade games that kids like. Where there’s a queen who needs to be protected from killer insects. The insects kept coming from all directions and I had to fight them off. All at once from all directions. And they just kept coming.’
As Olga wages a war of vigilance and cunning against anyone who will come between her and Lara, Fenster reveals her character’s skewed version of her past. She does this through Olga’s blatant and deceitful bid for sympathy (everything has an ulterior motive with Olga) and her fragmented account of the family she fled. As an impressionable child, Olga was pulled into a tryst of secrecy that hid her mother’s infidelity from her husband and united mother and daughter in a shared loathing of the ‘sheep-shit farm’ where they lived. This hateful alliance isolated young Olga from her younger brother, her bewildered father and the ‘rough’ country girls that would otherwise have been her friends. Her mother eventually fled the farm—we can only guess at the pain this caused adolescent Olga—but when she died several years later, she left her daughter all her money and a single note: ‘Take this money and get the hell out of there. Run to the city. Run like the wind.’
Fenster relays Olga’s background solely through the lens of her character’s warped understanding. Never, for example, does Olga regard her mother’s earlier flight as abandonment—she argues, with no real foundation, ‘I was the one she wanted to take away with her’. But in filling in the gaps in Olga’s fragmented backstory, the author gives us some insight into what drove her to become the derailed and defensive woman who shreds any chances of real friendship. She refuses to use her mother’s legacy to help fund the healthcare needed for her ailing father; she refuses the friendship offered by her seemingly amiable younger brother; she refuses to align herself with Lara and Sophie’s social network. Instead, she works tirelessly to rebuild what her mother called their ‘girls only space’, a physical and figurative alliance utterly dependent on keeping everyone else out. To achieve this alliance, she reasons, requires constant vigilance for signs of ‘flight-risk’. You have to keep loved ones close, she tells us: ‘grip them tight and say, “You stay where you are”… Some people blame their loved ones for fleeing when really, it’s their own fault for not seeing the signs.’
Fenster presents Olga’s obsession with Lara as a replay of her character’s relationship with her mother, but this time Olga will not let the subject of her attention slip away. She and Lara, she says, are a team, a team of two she will do anything and everything to guard, even if this means isolating her ‘sweetheart’ in her own contrived ‘girls only’ space:
I understood that it could be hard for Lara to find herself thinking about how friends and family might abuse your good nature. That can be hard. But still, as a friend, I knew that it would be good for her to start thinking about it, to start realising that I’m the only one with her best interests at heart.
Olga’s viciousness is signposted all the way through. The reader sees, far more than Lara, the plotting and planning, the angry manipulations, the way her fingers itch to give a smack. She is venomous towards Sophie’s friends, her brother, the ex-wife’s ‘no-tits, no-hair girlfriend’. She volunteers at the local church to serve Christmas Day dinner for the lonely and the poor, but as soon as she receives an invitation to spend Christmas with Lara and her family, friends and their hangers-on, her shallow altruism falls away: ‘After I met Lara I realised I was too good for those drunken winos at the church.’ Through these galling, self-justifying asides, Fenster takes us further into the character of Olga, revealing the unfathomable depth of hurt and rage that deepens the gulf between her and the other characters, and the extent of her own self-delusion.
It makes for compelling reading. Like the alcohol-addled Rachel in Paula Hawkins’ 2015 thriller, The Girl on the Train, Olga is an unreliable narrator who draws the reader into a recognisably flawed worldview. There is a parallel, also, to Jed in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love—Jed’s obsessive fixation on Joe, a man he barely knows outside a chance encounter, is framed as an instance of a de Clérambault’s Syndrome, also known as erotomania, a pathological disorder marked by the delusional belief that one is loved by another person, regardless of the lack of reciprocation. But unlike Rachel, Olga is reliably unreliable—we are left with little doubt as to the untrustworthiness of her account. And unlike Jed in Enduring Love, Olga is the sole narrator. Fenster uses this perspective to excellent purpose. The descriptions of Olga’s attempts to track Lara’s movements are masterful in their nonchalance—the way she lies in bed listening to Lara’s footsteps upstairs, for example, or gate-crashes her meet-up with ‘the girls’. In making us privy to the extent to which Olga stage-crafts her obsessiveness, Fenster successfully, uncomfortably aligns us as readers with her character, pulling us into that dark, tight space. But limiting the perspective to one deeply flawed character comes at a cost. Our insight into the other characters remains veiled, leaving the reader unsure as to the extent of their insight and surprised by their seemingly naïve trust. When does Lara begin to suspect Olga is not the kindly neighbour she seems? Why does the brother persist in trying to get his nasty sister onside? Why does Sophie turn to a woman clearly despised by her friends? Blinded by Olga’s ferocious paranoia, these aspects of the book, all relevant to the shocking final act, remain, frustratingly, a mystery.
Even so, Fenster builds a knife-edge tension that is as compulsive as it is alarming.
SALLY BLUNDELL is a freelance journalist and writer in Ōtautahi Christchurch. She holds a PhD from the University of Canterbury. She was books and culture editor for the NZ Listener and a judge (fiction) in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. She was awarded MPA journalist of the year in 2020. Her recent book, Ravenscar House: A biography (Canterbury University Press), explores the story behind a new purpose-built house museum in Ōtautahi Christchurch.