One of the three debuts Longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction 2017 Midwinter by Fiona Melrose is perhaps one of the most deeply haunting novels I have read in quite some time. It follows a father and a son (Landyn and Vale – the Midwinters) coping with the death of their wife and mother respectively. There are some dark themes of guilt within the novel as they both struggle to cope with the circumstances around the death itself and also with how to cope with each other’s grief.
The novel starts with a dramatic scene with Vale and his childhood friend Tom grappling with high seas on an ill considered boat trip. Tom ends up being seriously injured and Vale, largely unscathed by the incident, is left with feeling an enormous amount of guilt by the fate of his friend. As the novel progresses, the theme of guilt features strong as we see how Vale struggles with accepting the reasons for his mother’s murder and his father’s difficulty in dealing with the why and the how. The story flashes back and forth between the present and the time leading up to the murder, the time of the murder itself and the immediate aftermath. Some of the most emotional passages are in the immediate aftermath of the murder as both father and son start their lives with their new normal:
‘I couldn’t speak for choking. I knew my face was wet and eyes red, for all the things I’d told him about being brave I was done for. He looked at me in his serious little way. Always so serious. Then, the fellow walked in and climbed up on his Ma’s side of the bed, walking over to me on his knees and just settled in. He pulled my tired old arm out of the covers and over him, his back to me, perhaps out of respect, so as not to expose any more of my tears. “I’m feeling sad too, Pa.“‘
In the present, Vale blames Landyn – or tries to – as he tries to rationalise the circumstances around the murder. Landyn already wading through the guilt he has piled on himself cannot cope with Vale’s placing of blame and the pair’s emotional response act as a further distance between father and son. Landyn’s method of grief sees him projecting his wife’s intentions and soul onto a fox who roams around nearby lands. When the fox is injured Landyn does all he can to ensure it recovers. Later when the fox eventually dies Landyn treats it in the most noble way. This has to have been one of the most beautiful metaphors of grief I have ever come across.
‘I didn’t know what to do about Pa. Whenever we were in the same room I could feel he was trying to say stuff to me even before he opened his mouth. He’d kind of loiter around and then start by saying something stupid about how cold it was.’
Melrose tackles this most personal part of grief wonderfully and the skill in which she writes is incredibly evocative. It took me nearly two weeks to read this circa 300 page book such was the density in subject matter. This is simply not a book to rush through.
I was sure that this would find itself on the shortlist as the books that do always seem to stay with me after I read it. This story, the way it is written, and the themes that are dealt with of grief, guilt and longing affected me. It just got to me. To me – that is the epitome of a great book. One where you are fully immersed within its narrative when you read it and one you continue to think about long after you’ve put it down.
I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who has experienced grief as it wonderfully depicts the conflicting emotions you face.
Recommended for: if you liked Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter you will love this one.
Favourite quote: ‘We just stood there in the wet air looking at each other with all that hurt between us. The whole morning held its breath.‘