Tess – launch speech by Holly Hunter

The launch of Tess, by Kirsten McDougall was held at Meow in Wellington on Tuesday night. Here's Holly Hunter's launch speech for the book.

I’m sure many of us here have heard of – and maybe muttered a quiet ‘Hell yeah’ at learning about – the fact that reading makes a person more empathetic, more able to understand how others think and feel. Researchers Castano and Kidd found this is especially true of literary fiction, which is primarily concerned with relationships and characters’ psychology.

Tess is a remarkable book about character. It plays with our narrative expectations and ideas around empathy, of seeing through someone else’s eyes, and it does this by using the supernatural – something so apparently unreal in the most all-too-real of places, Masterton.

Naming a story after its protagonist is a bold move. From Jane Eyre to Brum, you’re holding your character out by the scruff of their neck (or their windshield) into the world and saying to your reader, ‘This is my reason for bringing you here.’ Tess herself is complexly written. She’s a woman on the run, on the threshold of her twenties and on the threshold of a new millennium. You get the sense that this story is a pit-stop between two very different parts of her life: she’s pulling over, recalibrating and putting a broken self back together before driving off out of the loop track she’s been stuck on.

Tess’s perspective is a privileged one from a narrative point of view, because Kirsten breaks the realism that we expect from literary fiction by granting her an ability to mind-read (for lack of a better term), to ‘see’ people around her – their motivations, pasts, futures, feelings. But this isn’t an X-Men kind of mind-reading where you find out what you want and go on to save the day; more often than not Tess’s ability reveals only that each character is bound up in their own demons.

This power of Tess’s to sense, or to see, the truth of a person is at the same time present on a formal level in Kirsten’s own writing. She treats characters who might in a lesser book, and certainly in society, be cast off as ‘damaged’, with such compassion and sensitivity. There’s the runaway, Tess; the middle-aged dentist and widower, Lewis; his staunch, defensive daughter, Jean; and his psychologically traumatised son, Jonti. When Tess goes to a psychiatric institute to visit Jonti, for example, our first descriptions of him are simply of his actions. He is cutting the grass with scissors, ‘precise and attentive’. When Tess tries to get a sense of him, to quote, ‘his eyes were blue like Lewis’s, but clouded, closed to her, as if hidden behind the thick metal door of a safe. His eyes were half-lidded when he spoke.’ Through each of the core family characters Kirsten delicately and sympathetically explores what it means to be ‘damaged’ and what it means to cause it.

For all Tess allows us to see in the minds of other characters, we as readers are kept at arms-length from her own thoughts and feelings. Tess is not a fantasy figure swooping in to save a family. Her own past, which comes to us in flashbacks, is one of abandonment and abuse. Her past has made her, understandably, a cagey protagonist, and we are only brought closer in to Tess’s perspective as she begins to learn trust. This is the flipped-on-its-head game that Kirsten plays with traditional narrative empathy: our instinct as readers is to identify with Tess, but she pushes us away and, through her seeing ability, tries to project our attention on to other characters. But there’s something magnetic about the way Tess sees the world, which may be to do with writing a young character who is forced to grow up too quickly. Those who know Kirsten are aware this is something she can identify with; Kirsten is basically still in her twenties. To attempt to bring my unravelling point together, the psychological development and depth of Tess the character is mirrored at a formal level across the book’s narrative development. This show an author who has intimate understanding of self and generosity in her pen – or her keyboard, I guess.

Tess is the kind of book you can read in a day, and this weekend’s forecast is for rain, so . . . This is a warm, fast-paced, sensitively observed and beautifully wrought story about knowing the people around you, and about knowing yourself.

Kirsten McDougall will be speaking about Tess at Going West with Pip Adam on Saturday 9 September, 1.45pm and at Ladies Literatea on Sunday 29 October.