In an act of idiotic drunken bravery, two friends, Tom and Vale, steal a boat in a storm. The consequences for both of them are enormous. The incident lays bare a past supressed for a decade and a future which is just as heavy to carry. The laden, rain-drenched darkness of the night of the theft sets the tone for this atmospheric narrative. Fiona Melrose’s stunning debut novel Midwinter tells the story of loss, the way it breaks you down and the effort it takes to put together the shattered pieces.
Melrose was born in Johannesburg and is now – after years of living abroad – once again based in the city of her birth where she is working on her next novel. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, and spent a lot of time in Suffolk where Midwinter is partly set. Told from the alternating perspectives of Vale and his father Landyn, the book recounts two seminal episodes of their lives: the period on their farm in Suffolk after the boys’ boat theft and the time Landyn spent with his family living and farming in Kabwe, Zambia, ten years earlier.
From the beginning we are aware that something horrendous happened to Vale’s mother during their sojourn in Zambia. The relationship between Vale and his father is troubled by guilt and blame. Much has been left unspoken, and when it surfaces between them, rage and violence erupt: “You can set the dark aside for just so long before it comes after you and rolls you back under its weeds and rocks.” Both of them are suffocating in the silence between them. As it spreads to Vale’s other relationships, it threatens to destroy all that is still worth living for.
Landyn holds on to the sightings of a fox in their neighbourhood – “fine, sharp as a whip, keen-eyed and sleek.” The beautiful animal embodies for him his late wife. He also cares for his sickly dog Pup. The attempts of the father and son to reach out to each other, to find comfort and healing, often go astray, but relentlessly they continue trying: “We just stood there in the wet air looking at each other with all that hurt between us. The whole morning held its breath.” Perhaps when nothing else is left, love will prevail after all?
Vale’s friend Tom comes from a different type of dysfunctional family. When his mother goes off with another man, his father in unable to deal with the abandonment in any other way than by turning to stupefying drinking. Tom is neglected and lonely when Vale and his family take him under their wings, but when they emigrate to farm in Zambia he is left behind to fend for himself for a while until their return. And then, during the storm, he is severely injured and his future looks even bleaker than ever before.
Between the crushing heat of Kabwe and the merciless cold of Suffolk, Melrose evokes the landscapes and seasons of her settings with succinct prose: “Sitting in the motor with Vale hissing and biting next to me, I could feel all the dust and grit rolling up over the deserts from Kabwe. It was as if from the moment I read about the place for the first time, the two places could never be separated again. I’d struck my boy and now we were all in this great sucking bog. Tom was in it with us. There was nowhere to go with all that. Nowhere at all.”
Midwinter is the story of broken people, whether they are broken by colonialism, war, grief, or cowardice. Melrose is very subtle with her critique of current global socio-political affairs – her focus is definitely on the intimate, personal spaces in and between us, but the war in Iraq and the trauma of colonial exploitation lurk between the pages of Midwinter and lend the novel powerful gravitas. It is because none of it is in any way laboured, it is one of the strongest aspects of the book.
The author should also be commended for doing what much too often writers shy away from: writing entirely from a (gender) perspective which is not their own. At no time in the novel did I ever feel that I was not in the heads and hearts of a young man and his ageing father. Melrose uses first-person narrators for both to great effect: “For ten years I’d shirked the memories. I always felt them scratching at the darker corners of my mind, still feral; but sitting on a tree stump in the gathering dark, all of it – the space, the fear, the sorrow – all seemed to find me again.”
The title refers to Vale’s and Landyn’s family name, but also to temporal and spatial thresholds as well as the emotional landscape the two men have to cross. Melrose’s rendering of what awaits them beyond is heart-wrenching and beautiful as it will ring true to anyone who has suffered unbearable loss.
You can judge this book by its exquisite cover which attracted me to it in the first place. Midwinter is lyrical and intriguing in its gorgeous starkness.
An edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times, 6 January 2017.