The Michael Gifkins Prize is an award given to an unpublished manuscript written by a New Zealand author. While Gigi Fenster already had two previously published works – The Intentions Book and Feverish – she won the award in 2020 for her unpublished manuscript A Good Winter. A Good Winter is a character study, a deep dive into a particular, warped perspective and an exploration of some of the drivers of that perspective. It is not comfortable, but it is also hard to look away.
When A Good Winter opens, Lara is helping out her daughter Sophie who has had a baby boy. With her husband having died six months before, Sophie is finding it hard to cope. Lara has been supported by Olga, a similarly aged woman who lives in her building. Olga is obsessed with Lara, an obsession that is not obvious and not responded to by Lara. This obsession is part of an egotistical persecution complex in which Olga believes that everyone else is out to hurt her or thwart her in some way, a personality trait that goes back to her childhood. As Sophie gets her life together and seeks more independence, and Lara starts to twig to Olga’s world view, the situation becomes complicated.
The whole of A Good Winter is narrated through Olga’s warped perspective. Olga is controlling, self-centred, mean and vindictive and will do whatever she needs to get her way. The success of the narrative is Fenster’s ability to convey how the other characters are reacting but through Olga’s view. But this is also tiring. Olga is an unpleasant person and her narrative voice, while consistent and pitch perfect, can also be wearing over the long haul of the novel. It also tends to make the whole narrative one note – a constant stream of Olga-style diatribe against all the world with the exception of the object of her, only half conceived, desire.
A Good Winter is described by the publisher as a crime thriller. There is a little bit of petty crime through the narrative and it does build to an inevitable tragedy but it is better described as a psychological study. The tension comes from understanding this character, realising what she might be capable of and watching her go down a path, pushed by those who don’t understand the depths of her psychopathy. However it is described, A Good Winter is a dark descent into a troubled mind. Readers will just need to decide how long they want to spend there.