Book and film review: Tess

Tess is an important story, a tale that unfortunately stands timeless and steadfast within the battleground of what it means to be a woman. I read the book and saw the movie in quick succession, which got me thinking about sexual abuse and its representation. 

I will honest and say I picked up Tess at first because of its surreal and beautiful writing, and not its harrowing storyline. When we are introduced to Tess, she is a prostitute working the streets of Cape Town, numbing the violence of it with prescription pills. How she got here remains a mystery, but the links to sexual abuse in her childhood become clearer. The reality of her life is tough and it is tempting to want to shut your eyes to what is clearly the daily struggle of South African sex workers. Yet the writing reads like a fever dream, and it propels you forward. Soon, shards of light start coming in. What was initially a story of abuse becomes a story of redemption, and saying no. At the end of the book I felt educated and appalled at the sex work industry in South Africa, but the humanity of the characters in the novel lingered with me for weeks afterwards. 

The film version has less time to develop the characters and history, but does an incredible job in using breathtaking vignettes to tell a harsh, stark story. Christia Visser is incredible in her portrayal as Tess, portraying the character with such heart that it is almost too much to look at head on. The filmmakers didn't want to dilute the issue of sexual abuse or sanitise it with a happy ending. They wanted it to feel like an assault, which it often does. Where the sex scenes in the book are disconnected and glossed over, the film has to show a picture and not tell it, so the violence implied by the text is felt head-on. I'm going to be honest here: I am a survivor of abuse (if you read between the lines of my short stories this is already pretty clear) and it was too much for me to bear. I felt terrible the next day, but this is just a personal bias I bring. I needed the redemption the book brought. I needed the light. 

All in all, I urge you to buy Tess by Tracey Farren. And if you have no history of sexual abuse, I would encourage you to see the film too. We need to look sexual exploitation head on and give the women who work jobs we don't necessarily understand the dignity and compassion they deserve. 

Buy Tess here: