Fiona Melrose’s debut novel “Midwinter”, longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, is aptly named. The titular characters are Landyn and Vale Midwinter, a father and son in rural Suffolk. But Midwinter isn’t just the surname of the main characters; it is the mood, the ambiance of the book. “Midwinter” is deeply quiet, starkly still like a midwinter’s day in a snow-filled wood.
Vale Midwinter is a twenty-year-old man living with his widowed father on their family homestead, roiling and seething in a private world of angst and anger. More than ten years after his mother’s death, Vale still has pent-up rage and blame for his father and the responsibility Vale places on him for his mother’s murder.
“Sometimes I just got angry when I should have been worried or upset. It was like I only knew one way to feel stuff.”
Vale’s life-long solace, his way of burning off steam, is to disappear on long walks through the hills and vales of his family’s land. Even as a young boy, his parents quickly recognize the importance of allowing Vale this freedom to disappear, to walk off his anger. It is the only way Vale seems able to cope with emotions and inner turmoil, the only time he feels truly free.
“Sometimes when I got back in the house after being out and free, I felt the air was too heavy and the rooms too small for breathing. Out in the fields, you could walk until your legs stopped caring where they took you. Inside there is always something to bump into. Pa doesn’t seem to mind, but then he’s much more quiet in himself.”
Landyn, in truth, does seem to be more quiet in himself. Though he alludes to instances of past fury, is an exceptionally calm, sturdy, and gentle man. His quietude and isolation don’t at all connote an aloofness nor a lack of empathy, however. He is deeply empathic and insightful, able to see and respect the soul and hurt of animals and people alike. When Vale and his best friend Tom are endangered by their own drunken stupidity and bravado, it is Landyn, as always, who sees through the mess of guilt and hurt and quietly implores Vale to come correct.
“‘Son, you need to go to Tom. I know I have no place telling you what to do. I know you won’t ever trust me to know right from wrong and this way from that ever again. If that’s how it is then that’s how it is. But listen to me when I say, that boy needs you now. For everything that’s going on in you there’s as much going on in him. He’s your brother, son. He is that. If you think I’m a rotten old arse of a father then you need to look at the one he’s got and know that however lonely you are he’s as much and more.'”
The introvertedness, the quietude and gentle nature, the unequivocal masculinity of “Midwinter”, all at the hands of a deeply talented female writer, are breathtaking.”Midwinter” is something special and unique, a pastoral look at family, love, guilt, and manhood, all from an eerily insider view that is, at least at some level, brilliantly contrived. Melrose writes with beautiful simplicity; her story is bucolic but not naive. Reading “Midwinter” is like a restorative stay in a quiet, wooded cabin. Resplendent and refined.