Review: Midwinter by Fiona Melrose
In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.
It’s an oft-repeated wisdom that grief makes people do funny things, but for Landyn and Vale Midwinter, it shuts them down into a kind of stasis. After the death of Landyn’s wife and Vale’s mother years ago, the pair return to their farm in Suffolk and work the land without confronting the grief that both of them feel. However, after Vale gets into accident, that silence threatens to crack as Landyn becomes fixated on a fox residing on his farm and Vale throws himself into increasingly destructive behaviour.
The Suffolk landscape of Midwinter is an isolated one; there are references to the outside world, but the characters remain insular for the most part. It gives the novel a level of intimacy that feels fitting for the story Melrose is telling. As the fracture lines start to appear in Landyn and Vale’s relationship, the reader is placed close to the pair, building the emotional resonance of their relationship.
Melrose’s dialogue has a rhythmic quality to it. For the gentler conversations or those designed to repair fracturing relationships, it’s slow and lilting, a real pleasure to read. This changes to a staccato harshness that jars off the page. It’s an effective technique and one which helps accentuate those moments of violence.
There’s a clever balance at play within the isolated setting; Melrose maintains a quietness to the general development of the narrative before contrasting it with the moments of violence that punctuate it. One of those moments begins the novel, a cataclysmic event for this small town and the beginning of a difficult winter that tries everyone’s resolve. As the Midwinters’ story develops, violence bursts through sporadically, cutting through the emotionless veneer that Landyn and Vale try to protect themselves with.
Ultimately, Midwinter is a very simple story of a family getting over a huge loss at its heart, but Melrose takes something that could feel rote and crafts something that is at once both tender and brutal, quiet and shocking.