By Laurence Fearnley
Penguin, NZ$28 | Reviewed by Jennifer Van Beynen

BILLED as ‘an unlikely love story,’ Edwin + Matilda traces the relationship between twenty-two-year-old Matilda and sixty-two-year-old Edwin which is indeed unlikely – but not least because of their significant age difference. The two meet as Edwin is photographing Matilda as a bride-to-be with her fiancé. Photographing Matilda in her wedding gown, Edwin is intrigued by her indifference to the rest of the wedding party, demonstrated by her wandering off with a video camera and filming piles of leaves, lost in her own world. As the rest of the wedding party continues around them, Edwin is the only person who notices this world.

The two only begin to converse properly when Edwin makes the special trip to deliver the photographs to Matilda’s house. By this time Matilda’s brief marriage is over – though for completely surprising reasons that come to the surface later on in the story. Initially, most of Edwin and Matilda’s encounters are awkward; neither particularly understands the other, but both make small efforts to lessen the tension of being strangers. Almost surprising himself, Edwin invites Matilda to accompany him to his childhood home, an old sanatorium previously used to treat tuberculosis. Eventually, the two travel through the South Island as Edwin asks Matilda, an aspiring documentary-maker, to help document his search for his long-thought-dead mother. This situation acts as a nice barometer for their relationship; as their journey progresses, and they learn more about Edwin’s family history, so they learn more about each other.

The book is written, almost between the lines, as a love story – although the trajectory of their relationship is followed chronologically in three main parts, ‘Edwin’, ‘Matilda’, and ‘Edwin + Matilda’, interspersed between the chapters are small fragments, set in a different font, which are personal insights from each character’s point of view and personal history. This is a very effective technique, as these fragments are personal narratives often concerned with reflections on intimate moments between the two. This method also adds an extra dimension to the story, deepening it for the reader. This perhaps would not work so well in another book, but the alternating, sporadic pieces of narration are handled so sensitively by Fearnley that they add to the whole story in a very satisfying way.

Through careful drawing of each character and their perceptions, of their world and of each other, the ensuing relationship between Edwin and Matilda seems to make perfect sense. The characters are drawn lovingly, and are very realistic. Their narration and dialogue also works well, and there are some beautiful observations made by each character. One that especially jumped out was Matilda’s categorising of ‘Edwin words’; words that are more “gentle, thoughtful…intimate” – words that she and friends her age would never use; words like majestic, marvellous.

Edwin + Matilda is a beautifully written book about an unconventional relationship, which is treated sensitively and compassionately by the author. There are some dark undertones, vaguely alluded to throughout Matilda’s story, which bring a slightly desolate and depressing edge to the reader’s experience - reading this book in one sitting is not advised. It is well worth it though, if taken slowly and gently.