There’s something not quite right about Morris. Highly intelligent and very good at his job as a metadata analyst, Morris is comfortable in the world of numbers, facts and lists. But without his recently deceased wife Sadie, Morris finds himself adrift in the social aspects of life, where people expect him to act and react in ways he can’t predict. Jokes confuse him, he does not like to be touched, he can’t explain his job, and it seems that he cannot cry.
When Morris’ adult daughter, Rachel, fails to return from a solo tramping trip in the Tararuas by her indicated “panic time”, the search and rescue co-coordinator asks the family what she is like; what kind of person is Rachel? Morris’ son David, and sister-in-law Wendy turn to Morris because “she’s like you.” Morris must turn inwards to discover exactly what he is like, why he is the way he is, and whether the ‘wrongness’ his daughter may have inherited from him is something that may have contributed to her being lost and alone in the challenging Tararua Range. He begins to ‘talk’ to his late wife, re-examining himself, his childhood and the significant events of his life, in part to see if he can discover any kind of truth that may lead him to his daughter.
The Intentions Book is masterful in that very little happens, in terms of the immediate event – the search for Rachel – and yet it is very difficult to put down. A brilliant study of character and relationships, the exploration of Morris takes us inside the head of the type of man who is rarely granted the role of protagonist. The oddness that Morris senses in himself but that he can’t quite explain, becomes clear to the reader through a series of beautifully crafted, gradually unfolding vignettes, snippets of Morris’s childhood, adolescence, and early teens. The oddness, we see, is not a wrongness, but just a different kind of normal, and Morris begins to find a new kind of peace with himself in a world without Sadie, his anchor.
The tramping theme that permeates the book situates it firmly in New Zealand, and gives the book its title – the intentions book being a notebook in which a tramper details his or her intended route and timeline. However, this tale doesn’t have the slightly self-conscious gloominess that I have noticed in a lot of contemporary New Zealand writing. It’s very hard to believe that The Intentions Book is Gigi Fenster’s debut novel, and it comes as no surprise that she has had short stories published previously. Fenster’s characters are believable, flawed and engaging, and in the book’s exploration of their relationships with one another in a time of crisis, I think all readers will find a little bit of themselves to explore.
I have only one small, logistical gripe – the ink on the pages of the book blurs when wet, so I would not recommend you read this in the bath! But I do recommend that you read it, and it is certainly a worthy finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards.
Reviewed by Renee Boyer-Willisson
The Intentions Book
by Gigi Fenster
Published by Victoria University Press