Gigi Fenster’s third book and second novel—one of the finalists for this year’s $60,000 Jann Medlicott Award for Fiction—is a short, powerful portrait of a mind on the edge. The narrator is Olga, a woman in her sixties who is helping out neighbour Lara. ‘Lara needed me that winter,’ she insists, because Lara’s daughter Sophie, a recent widow, has a new baby. Olga is drawn to Lara: ‘We’re both workers. We’re both roll-up-your-sleeves-and-make-a-pot-of-tea kind of people. Bring-in-the-wood-and-set-the-fire kind of people. Get-on-with-it kind of people.’
Olga helps out where she is needed, and perhaps where she is not, judging everyone for their inferior morals, habits and manners. Sophie is ‘a sick, depressed girl,’ she thinks, but without sympathy: ‘Who takes to her bed when she’s got a baby? Who takes more than nine months to mourn a dead husband?’
Olga’s claustrophobic first-person narration is a great way for Fenster to show off her skills: the reactions people have to Olga may be as insignificant as a look or an extended pause in conversation, but Fenster’s description of them means the reader understands immediately how the other characters really feel about her. This is juxtaposed with Olga’s constant misinterpretations of these details to fit the narrative of her own victimhood. Fenster keeps us wondering just how unaware Olga is of the truth and how deep her delusions go.
These interactions with the other characters are the only glimpses we see of the ‘real’ story, happening outside Olga’s mind, but there are enough of them to succeed in building a tense mood right from the beginning of the novel. Fenster does not let us believe Olga’s take on things for very long: it is clear that her protective nature is in fact a much more disturbing need to control. The depth of Olga’s obsession with Lara and her family becomes obvious, and we wait for Olga to snap. Her unstable mind justifies her actions by framing them as a me-against-the-world situation: ‘What those people don’t understand is that it is important to take control of a situation. It was important that I reminded myself that I am not a turn-my-face-to-the-wall kind of person. Important that I read the signs and took action when action was needed.’
Fenster keeps Olga’s true feelings about Lara ambiguous. Perhaps Olga herself doesn’t really understand them—is Lara a mother figure or a love interest? Lara, the main focus of a lot of Olga’s thoughts, is the only person she seems to like. Olga’s brother is ‘a pathetic, tragic little man’. Her fellow Body Corporate board members include that ‘naysayer, Fat Julie from number three’ and ‘that idiotic Mr Stuart’. Sophie’s friend Maxine, Olga says, is a fat and selfish woman ‘who smokes and watches Netflix all day’.
Olga repeatedly makes homophobic slurs about her brother’s ex-wife and her ‘no-tits, no-hair girlfriend … I mean, if you’re going to leave your husband to be a lesbian, do it properly. Don’t go for some boy with a vagina. Go for a real woman … Someone with breasts for crying out loud.’ She is hostile towards anyone who seems to have a greater claim on Lara’s life.
I served myself another piece of cake and I didn’t offer Sally one and I looked at her as I bit into it and I thought, You think you’ve pulled the wool over my eyes. But I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to be superior just because you met the dead husband and I didn’t. You want me to think that you know more about the family than I do.
Many of Olga’s criticisms and denunciations are repeated numerous times, and this feels true to someone with her obsessive, judgmental nature. (Sophie is ‘a wallower who liked being depressed’.) In her repetitions, Olga is also constantly trying to convince herself she is not the villain of a situation, and that everyone else is at fault:
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. You can’t work in the garden or change a nappy. All you can do is smoke cigarettes and watch Netflix. And whine in the ear of your friend. That’s all Maxine was good for, with her long, bright red nails made of resin.
Lara is a ‘tired, brave woman’ who, Olga believes, is deeply empathetic: ‘I could see that she understood what it felt like to be trapped, to be waiting for someone to take you away.’
Olga sees parallels with her own long-dead mother, an ‘artist being slowly smothered to death on a sheep-shit farm, and wishes she could 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.’
In early glimpses of Olga’s early life and unhappy childhood, her mother seems unstable, with insinuations about alcohol and ‘sickness’. Details are perhaps too scant, given that backstory dominates the last quarter of the novel. Are we supposed to understand Olga as a profoundly damaged individual or as a psychopath?
The novel’s setting is also vague. Except for references to ‘the snow’ and Christmas in summer, we do not get any information about the location. This may frustrate some readers, but it does add to the mood of stuffy containment that makes A Good Winter such a distinctive novel.
Although Fenster gives us some hints at what Olga is truly capable of, the slow deepening of her 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 other novels in this category, like Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, will be disappointed.
Some clues are more obvious than they could have been, such as when Olga is taking her anger out on the garden: ‘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, and manages to also make horrifyingly perfect sense. One particularly brilliant moment reveals just how far removed from reality Olga is and to what extent she believes her own lies.
This unsettling portrayal of a disturbed mind could also be seen as 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 A Good Winter, though you may never want to pick it up again.