Obsession by Elspeth Sandys
Why do people become obsessed with places, things or other people? What has evolved in us that enables us to continue to desire unrequited relationships, when to do so brings great suffering to ourselves? And what hyperactive flourish of male arrogance through the ages has ended up with the cruelty men are capable of towards women?
Obsession is a tale framed in the ‘found manuscript’ format. The manuscript is that of a famous New Zealand poet, Andrew Petrovich, who has died in tragic and obscure circumstances. The ‘publication’ of the manuscript – a memoir – may shed light on his mysterious death.
Petrovich is haunted by his tragic youth. His wife left him to find herself in India, leaving him to raise their daughter. And he becomes obsessed with a woman, Tessa. Tessa is the latest in a series of wives collected by Petrovich’s friend, a famous author and serial monogamist / womaniser, Dick. Dick is obsessed with himself, and his island home, a ferry ride from Auckland. Tessa is also a gifted author, who is obsessed with Dick, who stifles and thwarts her career with his cruelty. Their stories are told in a non-linear way, through the social upheavals of New Zealand in the 80s and 90s – from idealistic hopefulness through to New Zealand being somewhere to move to for “The chance not just to make a better life … but to make a killing.”
Sandys’ prose is luminous. And given the selfish and paternalistic ‘male artist’ described, it is strangely non-judgemental. The story is told from a male point of view; the evidence is just there for the reader to note the terrible price family and friends must pay for the existence of ‘great male art’. And as Petrovich contemplates: “when I think of the great women writers … it seems no one was asked to pay a price at all.” The self-obsessed Dick is portrayed with evidence of forgiveness: “If our bodies are composed of ninety percent water, it is perhaps not fanciful to describe Dick’s psyche as composed of ninety percent fear”.
I just loved this book, with its scraps of poetry, its unpredictably predictable characters, and its insightful mentions of New Zealand’s emerging culture. It is about people who feel they’ve “been given the wrong life”, who seem incapable of making the right decisions, even after long and thoughtful consideration. And when you think of it, that is probably close to a definition of being human. Through his manuscript, we get to know Petrovich, and why he is unsure of his worth and his judgement:
“Hope, Byron complains in a letter to a friend, is nothing but the paint on the face of Existence; the least touch of truth rubs it off, and then we see what a hollow-cheeked harlot we have got hold of.
I ought to have those words engraved on my forehead.”
Obsession is a wonderful read.