I’ve just had the privilege of reading Dead of Winter, by Gerri Brightwell, the most recent addition to Salt Publishing’s crime list. Gerri Brightwell is an English academic who works in Canada. The novel is set in Alaska and I’m certain it draws on her experiences of Canadian winters for some of its local colour.
The story is told in the third person, but through the eyes of Fisher, the (anti-) hero of Dead of Winter, a divorced taxi driver and born loser who is estranged from his only child, a teenage girl called Bree (short for Breehan); he has a barely-speaking relationship with his former wife Jan, who, years before the story begins, has tired of her drab and grubby life with Fisher, smartened herself up, turned estate agent and met and married the obnoxious but successful Brian. Even the cab company (‘Bear Cabs’) that Fisher works for is second-rate and his life is filled with shifty characters who continually exploit him. Two of these, Fisher’s step-mother Ada and Grisby, his on-off friend, are rare jewels of characterisation. Both introduce black humour into the novel. Ada manages to cheat him and make him feel guilty for not running her errands at the same time. The depiction of Grisby is a compelling addition to the great tradition of literary scroungers: he could happily rub shoulders with Joxer Daly and hold his own. Fisher knows that Grisby takes advantage of him, but he also recognises that the man is pathetically inadequate, even more of a loser than he is himself, and therefore feels unable to abandon him. Grisby, for his part, turns to dross everything that he touches: to call him accident-prone would be a gross understatement. He is motivated by a low cunning that attempts to be devious but doesn’t fool Fisher. The only solid-gold creature in Fisher’s life is Pax the dog, and he is growing old and incontinent.
It is because of the actions of Breehan, Jan and Brian and Grisby and Ada that Fisher not only stumbles upon the aftermath of a murder, but is in danger of being wrongly accused as the killer. To protect his estranged family, he enlists Grisby’s aid to remove the corpse from the crime scene. From this point, event piles on event to immerse Fisher ever deeper in lies and apparent guilt, a vicious circle from which he cannot break free because of his love for Bree and Jan.
The tense and fast-moving action is played out over a period of a few days. The setting is a small Alaskan town in the grip of a vicious winter. The winter itself becomes one of the villains of the novel, alternately endangering and thwarting Fisher as he pursues his desperate mission. Fisher himself is by turns philosophical, funny, annoyed and depressed. His is a complex character: he charms the reader, despite his shabby frowsiness, lack of self-respect and fatalistic approach to how his life has turned out, because fundamentally he is honest, showing an integrity that no-one else in the novel can match.
The plot of Dead of Winter is ingenious: I thoroughly recommend this novel if what you’re looking for is a page-turner. What appeals to me even more is Gerri Brightwell’s clear prose and the deftly-observed characters that she creates. If you decide to read it, you won’t be disappointed.
Like most writers, I abhor clichés, but one cliché that makes me glad each year is the certainty of the English spring, in all its sweet naffness: little lambs gambolling, pale flowers bursting into bloom, pussy willows, forced rhubarb and chocolate cream eggs jazzing up the fare in the supermarkets… and all of the 101 other things that mean that winter is being pushed off into exile. And, if I hadn’t realised this before, last year’s spring (which, if you remember, didn’t happen) left me mourning for an annual cliché that was then even more powerfully etched into our minds by its absence.
When I was young, I didn’t mind heading into the winter: autumn meant pristine new school exercise books or, some years later, the excitement of a new university year; it meant going home in the slightly scary darkness; it meant that the ice cream van that had stood at the end of the street on long summer Sundays had been replaced by the toffee apple man’s van (he who vigorously summoned the children of the neighbourhood by ringing an old school bell out of his window); it meant chestnuts and hot toast and Heinz vegetable soup. But that kind of cosiness and the underlying slightly edgy sense of the danger that might be lurking in the dark (and would, perhaps, grasp you in its claws if you were sent up to Mrs Dack’s shop for some milk after the 6 p.m. news) has long since been replaced for me by the dreary feeling of unwell-being that winter brings: of snivels and snuffles, mornings that are wet and foggy rather than icy and bright and, in the part of the world where I now live, mud, mud and more mud.
I think that much of the problem lies in the fact that we English don’t ‘do’ winter well. Go further South in Europe and the Italians and Spanish celebrate short sharp winters that include coping with heroic bursts of snow before getting back to the norm of a balmy spring-to-autumn of sunshine that lasts for eight months of the year. Go North, and you find Germans, Scandinavians and Russians revelling in the winter, showing off their prowess on skis and skates, sometimes with a great deal of bravado. (A few years ago, I had a Finnish client (day-job) who boasted that he always skied in T-shirt and shorts.)
Perhaps the only country that is as bad at wintering as we are (or worse!) is France, but the French people that I know seem to solve the problem by going into virtual hibernation: The weather is foul – they stay at home – and eat and drink, mon brave, and sulk until the spring appears. Then there are the Scots, whose winters are colder and gloomier than ours and who succeed in behaving in a correspondingly chill and more lugubrious way. However, there is a grandeur about their melancholy: it is a Carlylean gloom of grandiose proportions, not to be compared with the trivial gnat-like whining about the weather in which we English indulge. And, like the French, the Scots understand that the only way to get through the winter is by eating the appropriate food and taking a wee dram whenever the opportunity presents itself. I endured three Scottish winters when I was working in Dumfries (home of the deep-fried Mars Bar, though even Dumfries folk regard this delicacy as an extreme remedy, to be used only at times of urgent necessity) and I have to admit that getting through day after day on six hours of daylight was not easy. At the place where I worked, we were supported through the winter months by the culinary achievements of our two stalwart canteen ladies. Menu favourites were meat and tatties, beefsteak suet pudding and haggis or hash with chips. If we asked for something light, they served up lasagne. I once suggested that a winter salad would make a nice change and they nearly fainted. ‘Salad? In the winter? How will you get the energy to do your work, hen? How will you keep warm while you’re working?’ (Of our workforce of 160, half a dozen worked in the packing bay; the rest of us were seated at desks, with the heating turned up a good 5 degrees higher than was strictly necessary.) Yet perhaps they had the right idea: we were trapped in the catastrophe of winter, and they were battling with it on our behalf.
So I say again that the English are the most hopeless of all nations when it comes to winter. But we are good at spring, and especially at perpetuating the clichés that go with it. Tomorrow is the first of March: not officially spring yet, therefore, but good enough for me! And I invite you to celebrate it with me in whatever joyful, hackneyed way you wish.
[Being as usual snowed under (a winter metaphor indeed!) with work, I asked my husband to take some clichéd photos to go with this post, but, with his usual delicate touch when behind a camera, he has instead, I think you’ll agree, managed to capture some extraordinarily un-clichéd pictures from what would otherwise have been very commonplace spring-time situations.]
Yesterday was the first of March, St. David’s Day. Although there was frost on the ground, the sun, when it broke through the cloud, was shining brightly and with real warmth. The snowdrops and primulas have already been in flower for some time and yesterday I noticed that the dwarf daffodil buds are swelling. When I drove out at 6.15 p.m., there was still some daylight left. Spring is pushing aside a bleak winter!
Yesterday was also the day on which I wrote the last few sentences of Almost Love. Because of the non-sequential way in which I write (a habit that I am trying to break), they belong to a chapter about one hundred pages from the end; it was a chapter that I’d been trying to finalise for some time. Then, when there was nothing else left to work on (and therefore no way out of attending to it), it almost sorted itself, quietly and relatively quickly.
There’s still revision to be done, of course, although I revise all the time while I’m writing, but rounding off this novel has been quite different from finishing In the Family, which left me feeling battered and dazed. (I remember it well, partly because it was completed on the day of the royal wedding, which gave me more time to myself than usual.) This time I just felt happy in an understated sort of way.
The next novel is germinating at the back of my mind. It will need quite a lot of research, which I shall enjoy. For the moment, however, I shall focus on tending to Almost Love and enjoying the time before it bursts into bloom in June.