The Invisible Rider is an incisive and moving collection of seventeen short episodes from the life of Philip Fetch, a Wellington lawyer, and his family and friends. Each carefully placed chapter dives deep into Philip’s emotional confusion and uncertainty. Illustrated with evocative soft pencil drawings by Gerard Crewsdon, the book has plenty of character and style. It shows us the kind of questions middle aged professionals – men in particular – ask themselves, unexpectedly, as they wonder where their twenties and thirties went, and what happened to their dreams.
Readers who know Wellington will smile – and wince – at the way Kirsten McDougall brings to life familiar places we know and love. In other hands a chapter set in a bookshop with its ‘small handwritten notes,’ and ‘readings were held there, with wine and olives, and small salty crackers,’ might come across as too knowing. We all love the bookshop she’s describing but McDougall goes on to use the setting to reveal much more about Philip and his friend James, heading off perfectly any sense of indulgence.
I turned the pages of this book with great admiration for the way McDougall has observed so much that is true about people like Philip. As I read about him taking his children swimming, or thumping the bonnet of a car that nearly knocked him off his bike, or trying to stay with it at a party of the city’s movers and shakers, I not only identified closely with what was happening, I felt I knew Philip Fetch and that I’d lived parts of his life. Especially the bonnet-thumping.
It may be that this book won’t connect quite so closely with readers from other places and other demographics, but the themes and characters are universal. Friends, family, love, temptation and loss, they’re all here, and McDougall reminds us with this carefully crafted sequence of stories that we don’t face them alone.
The Invisible Rider is McDougall’s first book, although her poems and stories have been published in journals and she also won the ‘Short’ section of Unity’s ‘The Long and Short of It’ competition in 2011. In a way her winning story, Clean Hands Save Lives (in The Long and The Short of It, Unity Books, May 2011,) does something similar to The Invisible Rider. It shows us a character – in this case a mother – at a stage of life many of us can identify with, dealing with things we know all too well. What parent hasn’t been knocked back the first time they hear their child swear? At that moment you realise not that they’ve grown up, but that they will grow up one day, even the one that took ‘thirty-six hours and a knife to come out.’
There are many equally moving moments of insight into life in The Invisible Rider.
A graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, McDougall’s prose is clean and feels effortless, a sure sign that great efforts have been made to make it appear that way. I was particularly impressed by McDougall’s ability to show place without explicitly telling us where we are. One chapter is clearly set in France, although the narrative never says so. McDougall’s writing unobtrusively and seamlessly leaves us in no doubt at all about the setting in each chapter.
At times I thought a firmer editorial hand might have helped. McDougall has a tendency to repeat words or phrases in quick succession. We see ‘out the window’ five times in the first two pages, for example, whereas a tougher editor might have suggested alternatives.
If there are other shortcomings, they are to be found in McDougall’s limited exploration of some of the book’s other characters. We see something of Philip’s wife, his children and his friends, but perhaps more could have been done with them? It’s not as if the book, at 150 pages, is overly long. Could it have accommodated more material? As it stands there no padding at all, no filler, nothing on the page that is unnecessary, but rather a lot about life in remarkably few words.
I have no hesitation in recommending The Invisible Rider. With a main character we care about, plenty of emotion and events, and a story arc that reaches a perfect conclusion, all threaded together with the way people face up to the loss of certainty about life in middle age, it tells us many truths that we surely know but have most likely not yet admitted to ourselves.
Reviewed by C P Howe
The Invisible Rider
by Kirsten McDougall
Published by Victoria University Press, 2012