Review: Without Tess by Marcella Pixley

Title: Without Tess

Author: Marcella Pixley

Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux  October 2011

Synopsis: Tess and Lizzie are sisters, sisters as close as can be, who share a secret world filled with selkies, flying horses, and a girl who can transform into a wolf  in the middle of the night. But when Lizzie is ready to grow up, Tess clings to their fantasies. As Tess sinks deeper and deeper into her delusions, she decides that she can’t live in the real world any longer and leaves Lizzie and her family forever. Now, years later, Lizzie is in high school and struggling to understand what happened to her sister. With the help of a school psychologist and Tess’s battered journal, Lizzie searches for a way to finally let Tess go.

Status: Read on October 07, 2011 — I own a copy   {Courtesy McMillan’s Childrens/NetGalley}

My Thoughts:

Without Tess is a haunting tale of mental illness, grief and survival. The blurring of imagination and reality in childhood is one of it’s immense joys, I remember pretending I was a mermaid while swimming and hoping to find fairies in the garden. Eventually most of us lose that sense of possibility but in this novel, Tess retreats into her fantasies and is lost.
Alternating between the present and the past we learn of fifteen year old Lizzie’s overwhelming guilt and grief over her lost childhood relationship with her sister, Tess. At ten Lizzie idolises her older sister, Tess is bold and imaginative and their play is characterised by make-believe. As the sister’s story unravels it becomes obvious to the reader that Tess is mentally ill especially as their innocent play becomes something dark and sinister. Eager to please her eleven year old sister, Lizzie lets herself be drawn into Tess’s games but is never sure if Tess is only pretending or really believes her wild fantasies. The tension builds as Lizzie’s confusion grows and Tess’s behaviour becomes more outlandish.
I thought Pixely captured Lizzie’s struggle with her sister’s behaviour realistically. She is on the cusp of maturity where a child still longs for magic even though they know it doesn’t really exist. The emotional and intellectual conflict for Lizzie is intense and as a child she is torn by her loyalty to Tess and her growing awareness of what is accepted behaviour. I didn’t find it all surprising that at fifteen Lizzie was still unable to reconcile her feelings about her late sister, particularly when the issue of her Tess’s illness was ignored at home both before and after her death.
Tess is revealed through Lizzie’s memories and the legacy she left in the form of a journal. The author skilfully and cleverly reveals how Tess’s imagination slides inexorably into delusion. The reader is aware before Lizzie is that there is something wrong with Tess. I watched a documentary on childhood psychosis not too long ago and I feel the author really captured the eerie demeanor and thought processes of a mentally ill child. I sympathised with Tess, a mere child dealing with psychosis that probably frightened her almost as much as Lizzie, but I was simultaneously creeped out by her.
The first person point of view gives is a sometimes odd mix of childish naivety and maturity but the language of Without Tess is lyrical. Tess’s poetry from her journal precedes each chapter, with each piece more disturbing, adding to the atmosphere of the novel. The pacing is perfect, building slowly to the tragic conclusion without ever losing tension.
Without Tess is labeled as YA but I think in general it as best suited to an older reader but I can see great value in this novel for teens of any age who have a mentally ill sibling. Without Tess is a compelling read that examines a difficult subject in a sensitive yet honest manner.


Available to Purchase

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12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jules
    Oct 19, 2011 @ 06:36:39

    I’ve read a lot of really intriguing reviews about this one. It’s definitely a book that I want to read at some point and I adore books that make great talking points, which I think this one might be.

    Great review! 😀



  2. roro @roro is reading[rogier]
    Oct 19, 2011 @ 07:08:16

    It’s definitely a book that I want to read at some point

    Great review!



  3. Stephanie @ Read in a Single Sitting
    Oct 19, 2011 @ 11:54:57

    What an intriguing-sounding book. I’m so glad to see that the mental illness aspect is covered so well.

    Thanks for the great review, Shelley Rae.



  4. care
    Oct 20, 2011 @ 06:31:16

    I nominated you for the versatile blogger.



  5. Teddyree
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 12:36:54

    Very eloquent review Shelleyrae, totally agree with your comment about being generally suited or the older YA reader.



  6. Trackback: Without Tess Marcella Pixley Book Review

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