Midwinter opens with a frantic action scene as twenty-year-old Vale Midwinter desperately tries to rescue his friend, Tom, during a boating accident.
But this is a novel about consequences, not actions. The consequences of this drunken night, but also of the violent death of Vale’s mother ten years before.
In this astonishingly skilful debut novel, Melrose’s central focus is on the tension, distance and miscommunication between Vale and his elderly father, Landyn. The chapters are narrated in the first-person and alternate between the points of view of father and son. I was struck by how very authentic both of these voices were, particularly Landyn’s. The level of psychological realism here is truly extraordinary and this alone marks Melrose as an exciting new author. Unusually for a literary author, her writing is sharp and entirely without pretension. The subject matter is challenging but the prose isn’t; it is, instead, direct and highly readable. Melrose is often at her best in this Suffolk-set novel when she is writing about nature:
Everything smelled of the coast. It’s like that in winter, the sea finally takes over the land. In the summertime, that’s when the earth can claim its place, and push its shaggy boundaries right out, all fat and full of green.
Above all, though, Midwinter is an astutely observed depiction of grief and the destructive effect it can have on families. Melrose is particularly adept at highlighting grief’s habit of turning us against those affected by the same loss as us – those who we most need comfort from and most need to comfort. The Midwinters are trapped in a cycle of blame and silence when they could be a solace to one another:
I didn’t want to talk to him if he woke up. I had nothing I knew how to say.
This is by no means a bleak book, mind, despite its subject matter and title. For the thing about Midwinter is that, yes we’re in the very heart of the darkness, but we’re roughly halfway to Spring. Similarly, there is always the hope of redemption in this novel.
I will say, however, that, even at just 272 pages, Midwinter started to feel like a slog. It is an exceptional piece of writing but lacks the pace and plot that make an exceptional novel for me.