An appreciation of Tessa Duder’s 1987 classic novel Alex by former Green MP Holly Walker, first published on her abandoned blog the she-book reader, in May this year.
I had seen it on the shelf in the Waterloo School library many times. I was drawn to the cover, which shows a striking, androgynous swimmer emerging from the water, short-cropped hair slick with droplets, an unreadable expression on her face. The tagline hinted that she had experienced something darker and more adult than my child self had yet encountered: ‘Alex is a champion – and a survivor.’ Perhaps for this reason, I never took it out of the library.
My copy was a gift from Mum, a consolation prize for a 10-year-old who had survived belatedly losing her privileged ‘only child’ status. ‘To Holly, our own champion, with love from Mum and Dad.’ she inscribed inside the front cover.
For some reason, when I opened it in front of the aunties and uncles assembled for the celebrations, I pretended I’d already read it. This is a habit I’ve never been able to break – nodding along in conversations I’m not following, laughing at references I don’t understand, knowingly meeting people’s eyes and smiling when I’m not even sure what shared meaning we’re exchanging. I’m trying to appear knowledgeable, and to please. In this case, it didn’t work. Mum just looked disappointed that she’d bought me a book I had already read. I hurriedly assured her that it was so good I wanted to read it again and again, which was true. I just didn’t know it yet.
I can actually remember the exact moment when I did. (Spoiler alert!) Alex’s boyfriend, Andy, is killed by a drunk driver about two thirds of the way through. Reading it for the first time, I was devastated. But through my tears, looking up from my bed at the boxes of junk stacked on top of my big oak wardrobe, I had an epiphany – if I didn’t want Andy to be dead, I could just go back to the beginning and read the bits when he was alive again. It was like magic. I hurried to tell mum about this momentous discovery. I think she knew then that I was reading it for the first time after all.
I swam competitively for a little while when I was growing up, but that wasn’t why I connected so strongly with Alex. Like me, she was an over-achiever, and she was hopelessly over-committed. She was a first daughter. Success came easily to her, and when it didn’t she felt aggrieved, like the rules for everyone else shouldn’t have to apply to her. She was headstrong, opinionated, and non-conformist, but she didn’t enjoy sticking out like a sore thumb. She was a proto-feminist. And she could fall apart in a screaming heap when it all got too much. She was further down the path than me – I was only 10, Alex was 15 – but holding that book was like holding up a mirror.
I read the novel (and the three that followed it in the series) again and again through my childhood and early adulthood. I couldn’t shake the sense that Alex was me; that Tessa Duder had somehow seen right inside my head and heart and precisely captured what she saw there.
I took this seriously. When it seemed like my first relationship might turn into something, I gave my boyfriend a copy of Alex. When he handed it back to me he said, ‘I get it.’
During another re-reading, not long after accepting a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford, I found the postscript to the final book, which notes that Alex went on to study at Oxford and become a public figure in New Zealand. I felt a shiver of recognition. It felt like pre-destination.
In Oxford, I made a new friend. I felt we were connected on a deep, spiritual level. To check this, I drunkenly interrogated her in the courtyard of the Turf Tavern. Had she read the Alex books growing up? Did she love them as much as I had? Bemused, she played along. I fell off my bike on the way home.
A few years ago, a press release came across my desk. It was the 25th anniversary of Alex. It was being reissued. I was an MP at this point, self-important enough to feel I could email authors directly without appearing ridiculous. I wrote to Tessa Duder and attempted, clumsily, to tell her how much these books, this character had meant to me. She wrote back, charmingly. Many others had written to her with similar stories over the years. She was taken aback but delighted that her writing had meant so much to so many.
I felt a bit put out – surely no-one else could have identified with this character as strongly, as completely as me? She was me.
But of course, it wasn’t my head and heart Tessa Duder had reached into and reproduced on the page. It was her own. What I had recognised so clearly as a 10-year-old was authenticity. It should have been no surprise that countless others had had the same response.
Lately I’ve been playing with words, trying to put exactly the right ones on the page in exactly the right order. I want to join that club of magicians who can convey an emotion in words so precisely that readers feel like it was their own. So I reach, as I have so many times for comfort, courage or reassurance, for my dog-eared copy of Alex, this time for inspiration.
We’re off to see the Wizard.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.