When Gigi Fenster first began writing A Good Winter, she had an old piece of advice in her mind: "First you find your characters. Then you put them up a tree. Then you throw stones at them."
A Good Winter is a story of obsession, jealousy and delusion. Lara's daughter, Sophie, is recently widowed and gripped by postnatal depression, rendering her incapable of caring for her newborn son. Lara moves nearby to help care for Sophie and the baby, and Olga helps too. All through the winter, Olga helps - even when her help is no longer needed or appreciated. As Olga's obsession with Lara intensifies, her grip on reality loosens.
From the very first page, Olga is an unreliable narrator. Her voice is strong; stubborn and matter of fact. She knows not everyone will agree with her recounting of events, but she believes her truth wholeheartedly. Olga's lack of empathy quickly becomes apparent, as does her tendency towards grandiosity and manipulation. It is clear, however, that Olga cannot see these things about herself, and neither does anyone else. At first.
As Olga's relationship, and obsession, with Lara deepens, her past surfaces in the form of a younger brother - who is keen to reunite - and memories of an unhappy childhood on a "sheep shit" farm. Olga's relationship with her parents, her mother in particular, is complex. As events unfold, Olga's emotional state deteriorates until things end abruptly in shocking, unimaginable tragedy.
A Good Winter is Fenster's third book, and second fiction novel.
In discussing the book, Fenster admits that she had wanted Olga to be a damaged but gentle character who evoked sympathy - but Olga was having none of it. Fenster recalls that Olga sat up there in the tree, throwing stones right back until she relented and let Olga be "dangerously angry and bitter".
Olga is not just angry, bitter and dangerous, though; she is thoroughly unlikeable. Her character has little capacity for empathy, self-reflection or, as will be shown in brutal relief, ability to take responsibility for her actions.
Whilst the flashbacks into Olga's past offer hints on how she became the person she is, they are vague and filtered through Olga's uncompromising and narrow perspective. Their failure to add any deep complexity to Olga's character felt like a missed opportunity.
A Good Winter is a slow burn. It's well-paced and beautifully written, with enough tension to keep the reader thoroughly engaged. Ultimately though, if you like feeling connected to a story's characters, this book will lack depth.
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