Esther Chatwin has always been a quiet, insular person, the kind of person who is “happiest at the edge of things, watching and dreaming.” When she was in her teens she had been chronically debilitated by panic attacks and her growing distress when she is thrust into the public eye after her husband is elected Prime Minister of Australia lies at the heart of Fiona Capp’s topical novel Gotland.
Capp dissects the pressures placed on a family where one member achieves the kind of public position that invites increasingly intense public scrutiny and who is faced with the kind of compromise to strongly-held beliefs which challenges the foundation of their personal relationships.
Being First Lady was not the life Esther had expected when she was wooed by David then a dynamic militant student activist who continued challenging the status quo when he moved into academia. But for him, politics is his next “logical step” a step he largely chooses alone to make. “He couched the whole argument in the sophisticated language of political philosophy but this was what it boiled down to: Could you hold power and not lose sight of what really mattered? Was the problem the system or the people in it.”
Whilst in the early days Esther had happily campaigned for David, once he is elected she finds herself isolated the process and from his life by the professional machine that is the modern political party. She retreats to the classroom “teaching children to read, encouraging them to question and to think for themselves,” comfortable in the relative anonymity and sense of personal achievement.
Then, with the country on the cusp of political change the leader of his party, David and Esther’s long-time friend, suddenly dies. In quick succession David finds himself Leader of the Opposition and then Prime Minister. The transformation is agonising for Esther not just for the impact on her but the changes she believes she sees in David. They move from symbiotic married couple to be “in a Pinter play” with “all this pretending.” To add pressure, their daughter Kate begins operating in a clandestine, potentially dangerous, world that is the anthesis of her father’s.
A temporary escape presents itself when Esther’s sister Ros who is recovering from cancer invites her to go with her to Gotland a (real-life) windswept island off the coast of Sweden. There she meets the enigmatic Sven who is battling his own demons but whose presence forces Esther to re-evaluate the compromises that now run her life. There are inherent dangers in this liberating atmosphere. The confidence she finds in the freedom anonymity brings, while strengthening her emotionally, also invites devastating repercussions.
The action moves backwards and forwards between Melbourne and Gotland, locations not just literally thousands of miles apart but symbolic of the “emotional tangle: love and fury locked together in such a fierce embrace.” Gotland is both a physical reality but also a metaphor for the place we all need as refuge, the happy place to which you retreat when life becomes too fraught.
Gotland is slow-burning and to be honest there were several times at the beginning I was hoping someone would give Esther the name of a good shrink. Told in the first person we see everything only through Esther’s eyes and this is both an asset and a flaw. In less skillful hands than Capp’s it could all so easily have slipped towards caricature. As it is Gotland is an perceptive analysis not just of the pressures of modern political life but also of what draws us together and the sacrifices we are prepared to make to stay together.