A Good Winter by Gigi Fenster – 2021

It is a good winter for Olga, she has befriended Lara, and is spending most days helping her look after her daughter Sophie, and Sophie’s son Michael. Sophie is experiencing post-natal depression and finding it hard to care for her son, and she is still mourning the death of her husband. Lara has left her part-time job, so she and Olga spend most days in a routine of caring for Lara’s family. Olga has found her soul mate: “We’re both roll-up-your-sleeves-and-make-a-pot-of-tea kind of people.”

Olga is the sole narrator in A good winter, Fenster sets up her obsessions very clearly. You read her prejudices and nasty opinions, and through her descriptions the reader can tell how she is misreading almost every situation. Olga cleverly does not speak out loud most of the things she thinks, she knows she will appear clingy or risk pushing Lara away – if she does upset her she quickly turns the situation: “I have made her cry, and I have made her stop crying.” But the reader gets all of Olga’s unpleasant inner commentary.

Olga knows she is a new-comer to Lara and Sophie’s network of friends, “I was not one of the so-called girls”, and she doesn’t have time or a kind thought for any of them: “a group of outcasts put together by a nut case.” Some of the motivations she gives others are the only clue to her own drivers. She thinks others want to feel they are more a part of Lara, Sophie and Michael’s lives than she is. At one point she assumes that Lara is behind Sophie asking Olga to mind Michael once a week, she having gone back to work, as she must want Olga to spy for her.

The reader does get Olga’s back-story, and again knows it is a warped version of events. She and her brother lived on a sheep farm with their hard working father who loved their artistic mother. Olga knows her mother only loved her, and plotted for the two of them to escape the farm. When Olga was 10, her mother died and her father was distraught – Olga assumed he was crying for her. She hated being fussed over: “What I needed was for everyone to shut up so that I can get on with it.” The brother, Brian, still lives on the family farm.

Olga is the chairwoman of the body corporate for the apartment building where she and Lara live, a position that allows her to volunteer to do jobs and then feel resentful that people expect her to do them. She volunteers at church each Christmas to give her an excuse not to visit the family farm, and is then annoyed she has to waste her time on a “Bunch of winos”. Brian has kept in touch and visits Olga. She wants Lara to meet him so she will be impressed that Olga doesn’t complain about having such a loser as a relative.

Sophie is everything Olga’s mother warned her not to be as a child, “a wallower who liked being depressed”. Olga makes sure Sophie is left to wallow, and tries everything to drive her back to needing care when she turns a corner. Spring comes, Lara goes back to work, and Sophie holds a big garden party to celebrate new beginnings. Olga’s good winter is over. She suspects she might lose her new-found security, but “I am not easily dismissed”.

This is where I expected A good winter to reveal layers of interpretation – where things weren’t as the reader imagined – that there would be something to justify Olga’s attitude. Some of her views are extremely unpleasant, for example her thoughts about her brother’s ex-wife and her new partner – so unpleasant that they need to be justified. But there are no plot surprises, everything has been flagged. The careful even plotting does start to unravel towards the end, but not in a way that leads to a startling denouement. Despite the book cover saying “Nothing will prepare you for the end”, I found myself quite prepared and somewhat disappointed. Having said that A good winter is short-listed for the 2022 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction – so read it and see what you think.

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