Fascinating threesome, Rosemary Wildblood

Obsession
Elspeth Sandys
Upstart Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781927262900

Set mostly in the 1980s, Elspeth Sandys’s Obsession explores the dynamics of a relationship fuelled by desire and driven by a symbiotic need for intimacy. The narrative is purportedly written by a third party – who bears the sobriquet of the Dally poet – in a manuscript we are told in the foreword was discovered after his death. For those who like to judge a book by its cover, its design features three pressed flowers on a parchment-coloured background bearing faint traces of script, with the same theme continued through to the back in a graphic depiction of its contents. Combined with creamy pages inside, it’s a handsome book to own and shelve.

Dick, an acclaimed novelist, meets Tessa, an actress turned children’s writer, when they are expat Kiwis living in Melbourne – both of them in marriages that have reached their use-by date. Dick soon persuades Tessa he’s fallen in love with her, yet once he’s hooked her interest he hightails it back to New Zealand to secure his most prized possession – his house on Waiheke Island – which he’s heard has been vacated by its tenant.

Lured across the Tasman to live with Dick, Tessa puts her own writing on hold, as she sets about putting his cluttered house in order and tries to tame its precipitous, bush-clad section. The house serves as a metaphor for its complex owner and Tessa’s attempts to assert herself in the relationship. The tale that unfolds is compelling, not least because these two characters are so vividly drawn, each of them at times thwarting the expectations of the other. Children from the couple’s previous marriages enhance the storyline with their own problems, sporadic displays of filial concern and evidence of increasing maturity – in contrast to their parents’ distracted striving to meet each other’s needs.

The poet inhabits the role of participant-observer, whose recurrent impulse is to tell Tessa about his friend’s continued dalliances. Held back by his increasing attraction to her – which alerts him to his own, possibly dubious motives – he also fears alienating the woman who so readily accepts her partner’s every explanation. Dick, meanwhile, comes across as a man so terrified of abandonment he must keep others waiting in the wings, as a kind of emotional insurance. Tessa responds intuitively to this hidden frailty and in doing so proves to be the stronger character: when Dick undermines her writing ability, she takes a stand; when forced to acknowledge the truth of Dick’s behaviour, she confronts it with courage – yet she is unable to stop loving him. Meanwhile, the Dally poet’s slow-burning fascination with the pair – and his increasing longing for Tessa – adds further tension to the way the action unfolds.

Those familiar with the New Zealand literary scene will be tempted to make comparisons between these characters and the real-life people whose story followed a similar trajectory – yet Sandys is too seasoned a writer to present us with straight biography disguised as fiction. There are enough differences here for the novel to take on a life of its own, and to keep any reader turning its pages in anticipation. Real-life events are woven into the plot to give us a shared sense of history, in a carefully crafted work whose poignant concluding chapters lead to an intriguing ending.

Despite the elegant way the novel is put together, I had a few reservations about the poet, who is the most enigmatic of the three protagonists. The (usually ironic) dear reader device, used to address us directly, is a tad arch for my taste – and a distraction from the written outpouring he is supposedly using as personal therapy. We know from the start he’s a New Zealander of Dalmatian extraction and learn from his ongoing account about several dark episodes in his past, yet he displays such patience and forbearance towards Tessa throughout the narrative – rather like Dobbin in Vanity Fair – that it creates a slight dissonance with what is suggested in the foreword. Likewise, because the author is parsimonious with her clues, some readers might decide the tragedy alluded to at the start is insufficiently explained at the end. It made me question if the foreword was even necessary, since the novel could stand up well without it.

Nevertheless, I came to my own conclusion about what happened – which I won’t disclose here, as it might reveal too much. It’s such an entertaining read – on so many levels – I suggest you obtain a copy of the book and work it out yourself.

 

Rosemary Wildblood is a Wellington poet and fiction writer who has published two novels and is currently working on a third.

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