by Suzanne Singleton
Hugo’s Gift opens in Wellington in 1926 with Hugo Kane, an adoring husband, giving his wife, Isabel, a magnificent birthday gift – a brand new Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. In the process of learning to handle the car, Isabel loses control of it and kills an acclaimed Russian pianist who is on tour in New Zealand. The dying pianist’s curse plunges Isabel into a lengthy bout of post-traumatic stress and tragedy strikes the Kanes over and over as the pianist’s curse takes its toll.
While the Kanes struggle to cope with the aftermath of Isabel’s accident and her psychiatrist battles with her illness, Singleton takes us back in time to the pianist’s childhood in late 19th century Russia in a time of great political and social upheaval. At the same time, we are flashed back to Isabel’s childhood in New Zealand. These switches in scene add depth and texture to a story which could otherwise have been little more than a series of terrible misfortunes befalling three generations of the same family, alternating with tense sessions with the psychiatrist.
Hugo’s Gift is a series of snapshots of life in New Zealand and Russia from the 1920s through to 1981. We see the growth of the automobile industry, the growing interest in aviation, an outbreak of polio, the medical and social approach to mental illness and the attitudes of the day. We are reminded of expressions, such as ‘lunatic asylum’ and ‘as Catholic as Paddy’s pig’ which have largely gone from today’s vocabulary.
Singleton’s background in psychology provides us with a sensitive and convincing account of the relationship between Isabel and her often bemused psychiatrist. At the same time, Isabel’s sessions with the psychiatrist are skilfully used to shift the story backwards and forwards in time. Similarly, Singleton has used Hugo Kane’s housekeeper’s musings, in diary format, to give us insights into the story from a different point of view. In one of these diary pages, dated two years after the accident, the housekeeper comments that before the accident, Isabel often laughed in a slightly unhinged way…a symptom of her impending lunacy. Food for thought!
Gradually, as the stories unfold, the ones set in New Zealand and the Russian one are drawn together. I found the last few pages absolute page turners. Having been lulled into accepting never ending gloom as the curse claimed its victims, I was suddenly anxious, with the late introduction of a pivotal character, to discover if another catastrophe was in store or if the curse could be broken.
In spite of the succession of sad events that befall the Kanes, there are some very strong female characters in Hugo’s Gift, women who defy the curse and survive it, providing uplifting moments in sad circumstances.
Hugo’s Gift is written in an easy-to-read narrative style. However, with mental health and professional ethics critical issues in our modern society, it is inevitable that readers will reflect more deeply on Isabel’s plight and the psychiatrist’s dilemma.
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Author: Suzanne Singleton
RRP: UK £8.99; NZ$20 + postage via website
Available: Print book at Waterstones, Barnes&Noble, most online stores, www.cauldronbooks.co.nz