“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.” Andrew Wyeth
January – a month for reflection, for self-improvement, for quiet contemplation – and a time to revisit favourite books. When the frivolity and celebrations of Christmas are over, what we are left with is Winter in its purest sense; we feel the full force of the British weather (every year I forget quite how cold it gets in this country!); the agony of depleted bank accounts (I fear I shall never recover!), we are faced with the glaring white pages of a 2015 diary without the merest imprint of ink – what better time is there for reading? This is perhaps my most productive reading period; post-Christmas through until Spring. I used to set myself the challenge of reading a Russian classic ever year; novels that felt as painfully long and challenging as the winters they described. An old friend used to choose to tackle a Dickens novel each year to see him through the season. This may not be for you – perhaps you feel that winter is bloody difficult enough thankyou without adding classic (read: BORING) novels into the mix. Although nothing matches the satisfaction of a few hours spent curled up under a blanket, devouring great chunks of a novel, to emerge triumphant when you realise that you actually understand everything that is going on and could name all of the characters (if this novel is Dr Zhivago you’re a genius). Winter is also the perfect time to make like a Victorian and embark on a gothic novel or ghost story; something by Wilkie Collins or Susan Hill goes down a treat. These are best paired with a roaring log fire, a glass of brandy gently warmed in the palm and a fearless companion to cling to when it all becomes too much. I am also drawn to reading novels/memoirs set in freezing, snow-covered landscapes; I often revisit Ernest Shackleton’s incredible diary South, his first-hand account of the Endurance expedition to the South Pole in 1914/15 and if you haven’t read it, the famous Apsley Cherry-Garrard account of the Scott poles mission The Worst Journey in the World is an extreme adventure story like no other.
My favourite all-time winter read is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I particularly love the scenes set in the North Pole, which are said to be inspired by the Shelley’s trip to Chamonix and Mont Blanc (you can read Percy Bysshe’s powerful poem of the same name here) . I have long been fascinated with the link between extreme landscapes (particularly the poles), their bleakness and isolation and the madness they can induce. It is a subject explored in most polar-exploration memoirs and novels (almost a genre in it’s own right). Plus I can’t think of anything more horrific than a monster on the loose in that endless, stretching whiteness. It gives me chills every time I read it.
If you fancy something a little more contemporary or shorter format, here are my favourite winter picks:
THE SNOW CHILD by Eowyn Ivey
The leaden sky seemed to hold its breath. December grew near, and still there was no snow in the valley. For several days, the thermometers held at twenty-five below zero. When Mabel went out to feed the chickens, she was stunned by the cold. It cut through her skin and ached in her hip bones and knuckles…
This debut novel from Alaskan native Eowyn Ivey, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, made waves when it was released but I only got around to reading it this winter. Set in rural Alaska in the 1920s, the story focuses on childless couple Jack and Mabel who have moved away from their families and are attempting to make a living from the land. The landscape is harsh and unforgiving; a barren wilderness drained of colour. Their homestead, perched on the edge of an enormous forest miles from any neighbours, feels increasingly isolated. With falling temperatures, food stores running low and money impossible to come by, life becomes a daily test of survival. The outlook is bleak until a little girl enters their lives, changing everything. This novel is a powerful exploration of love, hope, friendship and growing old; it is tenderly written and filled with beautiful observations of nature and moments of sublime beauty. It is a heart-warming and memorable winter read.
THE WINTER BOOK by Tove Jansson
I lay down flat on the rock, reached out with my hand and broke off one of the icicles in the grating. It was so cold, it felt hot. I held onto the grating with both hands and could feel it melting. The iceberg was moving as one does when one breathes – it was trying to come to me.
Who better to introduce some light into the darkest winter than Finnish-born Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins and a rather wonderful adult writer too. The Winter Book is a collection of short stories/memoirs, largely based on Jansson’s experiences of growing up in Finland. Although written for adults, the subjects and narrative voices are children; a technique which lends the stories a endearing sense of adventure; a clarity and innocence that is hard to capture in adult writing. In her introduction to this book, Ali Smith calls the stories ‘pieces of scattered light,’ describing them as ‘deceptively simple’ and ‘innocence, distilled to an essence.’ My favourite is a short story called The Iceberg. It tells the story of a young girl who, unable to stop thinking about the iceberg she has seen earlier that day, gets out of bed to visit it in the middle of the night. A mere 5 pages long, it is a a story I can read and re-read and it never loses the magic I felt when I first came across it.
ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton
Ethan…seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface…I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guess that to be, but had in it…the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.
Coming it at just 103 pages, this incredible novella from Edith Wharton is quite the departure from her usual fare; gone are the New York elite, the Park Avenue mansions, the quaint afternoon tea parties; instead we are transported to rural New England, to a small, poverty-stricken community which counts the unlucky Ethan Frome among its number. Tethered to his family’s farm, trapped in an unhappy marriage with sickly Zeena, he is merely existing until the enchanting Mattie Silver enters the scene. The consequences are devastating; heartbreaking. This is a novella you won’t forget. The feeling of cold permeates through the book, adding to the sense of emptiness, of poverty (in all forms) in the characters colourless lives.
EVERLAND by Rebecca Hunt
Everland had grown increasingly silent as the remaining animals continued to migrate for winter. With each passing day the shriek became more infrequent, muted and dispersed. The sun has diminished with the sound. Dawn now came at around nine o’clock and dusk fell by mid-afternoon. For the short period in between, a horizontal light flared across Everland which caused crazily elongated shadows and burnished everything in golden, almost unbearably nostalgic colours.
Now the more observant among you will remember that I mentioned this back in May , just after this book had been released. Following the lives of three people on two very different expeditions – one in 1913, the second an entire century later – Hunt perfectly recreates that sense of endless, stretching ice, the pure, white blankness and the extreme, maddening isolation of that most hostile of landscapes, Antarctica. With echoes of Frankenstein and The Worst Journey in the World, this astounding second novel establishes Rebecca Hunt as one of Britain’s best young novelists. The writing is filled with wonderful contradictions – one moment it majestic and powerful, the next it is finely describing the minutiae of life in the Poles. If you have read all of the polar exploration ‘classics’ and are looking for your next adventure read, this could be the perfect choice.