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May 18, 2009

Step Closer by Tessa McWatt

Tessa McWatt’s Step Closer is a puzzle of a novel, which I was just in the right place for considering what I’d read before it. The novel’s various pieces as follows: the 2004 Tsunami, witnessed from afar by Emily who is a Canadian living in Spain with her virologist boyfriend, Sam. Virology, which Emily is trying to learn more about so she can assist Sam with Spanish translations. And that Emily is a writer, the tsunami unleashing a need within her to put together a story about what happened between her, her friend Marcus and a man called Gavin along a pilgrim’s trail five years previous. Gavin and Marcus’s encounter relating to an incident at a Scottish borstal twenty-five years before that, during which one boy had destroyed the other’s life. There is also the matter of Sam’s current preoccupation with a colleague, and with his brother who’d disappeared years before.

A narrator struggling with her narrative is a difficult creature, particularly when the struggle is (however fictionally) such a literal one, to put pen to paper. McWatt avoids the chance of tediousness, however, by having Emily embed herself within her characters’ points of view. In her shifts away from first-person, she presents herself as a secondary character, and uses whatever pieces she can find to construct Marcus and Gavin’s stories. She also vividly portrays expatriate life with its listlessness and danger, dares and temptations, fleeting selves and cleanish slates, against the running of the bulls.

The text is further enhanced by McWatt’s marvelous prose, which is difficult, surprising and illuminating. Shying away from nothing– the sordid, the disturbing and the strange, but none of it cheapened, for sensation. As a reader I saw before me many scenes I didn’t like, but I was confident the author was showing it to me for a reason. That she knew very well what she was doing.

Like Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife, this is a story whose narrator never asked the right questions, never noticed the right things, and so there are gaps in the story that can’t be helped, and are actually especially illuminating. Though McWatt’s Emily’s telling is more satisfying, perhaps not providing all the answers, but we do see in the end that her telling has been a journey of self-discovery. She realizes that she has so often made herself a character in other people’s stories that she’s forgotten her own– which is a strange and twisted kind of egotism. Her focus on the past also keeping her from dwelling on the problems of her present, which are more numerous than she might allow. McWatt has written the most galvanizing, satisfying and beautiful conclusion, however, which doesn’t so much give an end away as allow us to see Emily on the way to decidedly somewhere.

Even permitting gaps, however, not all the pieces here match up as they should. The virology metaphor perhaps stretches too far, and is not ultimately convincing. The questions Emily leaves unasked are sometimes too opportune plot-wise, and don’t wholly make sense. But with such a puzzle of a novel, I do suspect that another read would make things clearer, and that I could even do well with another after that. The novel’s conclusion making clear that Tessa McWatt is in control, and that ultimately such disparate plots link together. Which has been Emily’s point from the very beginning– “There is an order here, awkward and quiet, even now, if you look carefully.” The reader is convinced.

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