Winter Reads, Part II: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Howard Norman & Picture Books
As hoped for in my first instalment of winter reads, the weather is warmer now and signs of spring are appearing in the form of cherry blossom, crocuses, daffodils, primroses and snowdrops. So I’m bidding a (perhaps premature) farewell to winter with these two novels featuring very chilly settings. I also borrowed from the library a big ol’ pile of wintry children’s books full of bears, rabbits, snowmen, snowballs and days off school.
Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (2016; 2020)
[Daunt Books Originals; translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins]
Another title doing double duty for #FrenchFebruary and #ReadIndies month. This was Dusapin’s debut and won the Prix Robert Walser and the Prix Régine-Deforges.
Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife-edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In a winter that never ends.
The protagonist is a young mixed-race woman working behind the reception desk at a hotel in Sokcho, a South Korean resort at the northern border. A tourist mecca in high season, during the frigid months this beach town feels down-at-heel, even sinister. The arrival of a new guest is a major event at the guesthouse. And not just any guest but Yan Kerrand, a French graphic novelist. Although she has a boyfriend and the middle-aged Kerrand is probably old enough to be her father – and thus an uncomfortable stand-in for her absent French father – the narrator is drawn to him. She accompanies him on sightseeing excursions but wants to go deeper in his life, rifling through his rubbish for scraps of work in progress.
The underemployed, self-sabotaging young woman is so familiar these days as to be a cliché (and I’d already met a very similar one, also Korean, in Ro from Sea Change by Gina Chung), but there is still something enticing about the atmosphere of this novella. I also enjoyed the narrator’s relationship with her mother, a fishmonger, which sets up for the entirely inconclusive and potentially very disturbing ending. Impossible to say more without spoilers, but I’d be interested to hear what others who have read it think will happen after the last page. (Birthday gift from my wish list)
The Northern Lights by Howard Norman (1987)
Norman is a really underrated writer and I’m a big fan of The Bird Artist and especially I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place. This is a weird one; it’s his debut and you can see the autobiographical inspiration (per his Introduction) and the sorts of interests that would recur across his oeuvre, such as subarctic Canada and its Indigenous peoples, absent fathers and hotels (not the only reason this reminded me most of early John Irving).
The Canadian settings represent the two poles of isolation and the urban: Quill, Manitoba versus Toronto in 1959–60. The novel opens with the death of teenage Noah’s best friend, Pelly, who fell through a frozen lake while riding his unicycle. Noah’s family dynamic changes quickly, as his cousin Charlotte, orphaned by a factory disaster, comes to live with them and then his cartographer father leaves them to become a hermit in a remote cabin furnished with musical instruments. Noah stays with Pelly’s parents, Sam and Hettie (a Cree woman), to brave a harsh Quill winter –
January and February mornings you would get a crack of icy static in the nostrils when first stepping outside and have to shade your eyes against the harsh glint of snow, if the sun had worked its way through. Certain days neighbors were seen only on their way to their woodsheds. Chimney smoke was our windsocks. Enormous drifts had built up against the houses, sculpted in various shapes. Even brief walks were taken on snowshoes. Winter might be seven months long.
– while his mother, Mina, takes Charlotte to Toronto to run The Northern Lights, the movie theatre where she met her husband as a young woman. The previous alcoholic owner has run it into the ground; “the curtain smelled like a ten-thousand-year-old moose hide.”
At the time that Noah joins them, he’s never seen a movie before, but as “manager” of the theatre he soon sees The Magnificent Seven 15 times in quick succession. Norman does a peculiar thing here, which is to introduce a key character quite late on in the action. Noah hires Levon, a Cree man, to be the projectionist and he promptly moves his entire family into the building. Had Noah relocated to Toronto earlier, we might have seen more of these characters. Norman’s habit of mimicking broken speech from non-native speakers through overly frequent commas (indicating pauses, I suppose) irked me. There are lots of quirky elements here and I enjoyed the overall atmosphere, but felt the plot left something to be desired. I’d start elsewhere with Norman, but could still recommend this to readers of Robertson Davies and Elizabeth Hay. (Secondhand – 2nd & Charles)
And a DNF:
Snowflake, AZ by Marcus Sedgwick (2019): I wanted to try something else by the late Sedgwick (I’ve only read his nonfiction monograph, Snow) and this seemed ideal. I could have gotten onboard with the desert dystopia, but Ash’s narration was so unconvincing. Sedgwick was attempting a folksy American accent but all the “ain’t”s and “darned”s really don’t work from a teenage character. I only managed about 20 pages. (Public library)
Plus a whole bunch of children’s picture books:
The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen [adapted by Geraldine McCaughrean; illus. Laura Barrett] (2019): The whole is in the shadow painting style shown on the cover, with a black, white and ice blue palette. It’s visually stunning, but I didn’t like the language as much as in the original (or at least older) version I remember from a book I read every Christmas as a child.
A Polar Bear in the Snow by Mac Barnett [art by Shawn Harris] (2020): From a grey-white background, a bear’s face emerges. The remaining pages are made of torn and cut paper that looks more three-dimensional than it really is. The bear passes other Arctic creatures and plays in the sea. Such simple yet intricate spreads.
Snow Day by Richard Curtis [illus. Rebecca Cobb] (2014): When snow covers London one December, only two people fail to get the message that the school is closed: Danny Higgins and Mr Trapper, his nemesis. So lessons proceed. At first it feels like a prison sentence, but at break time Mr Trapper gives in to the holiday atmosphere. These two lonely souls play as if they were both children, making an army of snowmen and an igloo. And next year, they’ll secretly do it all again. Watch out for the recurring robin in a woolly hat.
The Snowflake by Benji Davies (2020): I didn’t realize this was a Christmas story, but no matter. A snowflake starts her lonely journey down from a cloud; on Earth, Noelle hopes for snow to fall on her little Christmas tree. From motorway to town to little isolated house, Davies has an eye for colour and detail.
Bear and Hare: SNOW! by Emily Gravett (2014): Bear and Hare, wearing natty scarves, indulge in all the fun activities a blizzard brings: snow angels, building snow creatures, having a snowball fight and sledging. Bear seems a little wary, but Hare wins him over. The illustration style reminded me of Axel Scheffler’s work for Julia Donaldson.
Snow Ghost by Tony Mitton [illus. Diana Mayo] (2020): Snow Ghost looks for somewhere she might rest, drifting over cities and through woods until she finds the rural home of a boy and girl who look ready to welcome her. Nice pastel art but twee couplets.
Rabbits in the Snow: A Book of Opposites by Natalie Russell (2012): A suite of different coloured rabbits explore large and small, full and empty, top and bottom, and so on. After building a snowman and sledging, they come inside for some carrot soup.
The Snowbear by Sean Taylor [illus. Claire Alexander] (2017): Iggy and Martina build a snowman that looks more like a bear. Even though their mum has told them not to, they sledge into the woods and encounter danger, but the snow bear briefly comes alive and walks down the hill to save them. Delightful.
Snow (2014) & Lost (2021) by Sam Usher: A cute pair from a set of series about a little ginger boy and his grandfather. The boy is frustrated with how slow and stick-in-the-mud his grandpa seems to be, yet he comes through with magic. In the former, it’s a snow day and the boy feels like he’s missing all the fun until zoo animals come out to frolic. There’s lots of white space to simulate the snow. In the latter, they build a sledge and help search for a lost dog. Once again, ‘wild’ animals come to the rescue. /
The Lights that Dance in the Night by Yuval Zommer (2021): I’ve seen Zommer speak as part of a conference panel on children’s nature writing. The Aurora Borealis unfolds across the sky above the creatures and people of the far north: “We sashayed for an Arctic fox. We swayed above an old musk ox.” I expected more anatomical accuracy (i.e., faces not flattened so that eyes appear to be next to each other on the same side of a face) but I loved how vivid and imaginative it all is.
Any snowy or icy reads (or weather) for you lately?
A CanLit Classic: The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
Hagar Shipley has earned the right to be curmudgeonly. Now 90 years old, she has already lived with her son Marvin and his wife Doris for 17 years when they spring a surprise on her: they want to sell the house and move somewhere smaller, and they mean to send her to Silver Threads nursing home. What with a recent fall, gallbladder issues and pesky constipation, the old woman’s health is getting to be more than Doris can handle at home. But don’t expect Hagar to give in without a fight.
This is one of those novels where the first-person voice draws you in immediately. “I am rampant with memory,” Hagar says, and as the book proceeds she keeps lapsing back, seemingly involuntarily, into her past. While in a doctor’s waiting room or in the derelict house by the coast where she runs away to escape the threat of the nursing home, she loses the drift of the present and in her growing confusion relives episodes from earlier life.
Many of these are melancholy: her mother’s early death and her difficult relationship with her father, an arrogant, self-made shopkeeper (“Both of us were blunt as bludgeons. We hadn’t a scrap of subtlety between us”); her volatile marriage to Bram, a common fellow considered unworthy of her (“Twenty-four years, in all, were scoured away like sand-banks under the spate of our wrangle and bicker”); and the untimely deaths of both a brother and a son.
The stone angel of the title is the monument on Hagar’s mother’s grave, but it is also an almost oxymoronic description for our protagonist herself. “The night my son died I was transformed to stone and never wept at all,” she remembers. Hagar is harsh-tongued and bitter, always looking for someone or something to blame. Yet she recognizes these tendencies in herself and sometimes overcomes her stubbornness enough to backtrack and apologize. What wisdom she has is hard won through suffering, but she’s still standing. “She’s a holy terror,” son Marvin describes her later in the novel: another paradox.
Originally from 1964, The Stone Angel was reprinted in the UK in September as part of the Apollo Classics series. It’s the first in Laurence’s Manawaka sequence of five novels, set in a fictional town based on her hometown in Manitoba, Canada. It could be argued that this novel paved the way for any number of recent books narrated by or about the elderly and telling of their surprise late-life adventures: everything from Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared to Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James. I was also reminded of Jane Smiley’s Midwest novels, and wondered if Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries was possibly intended as an homage.
I loved spending time in Hagar’s company, whether she’s marveling at how age has crept up on her—
I feel that if I were to walk carefully up to my room, approach the mirror softly, take it by surprise, I would see there again that Hagar with the shining hair, the dark-maned colt off to the training ring
trying to picture life going on without her—
Hard to imagine a world and I not in it. Will everything stop when I do? Stupid old baggage, who do you think you are? Hagar. There’s no one like me in this world.
or simply describing a spring day—
The poplar bluffs had budded with sticky leaves, and the frogs had come back to the sloughs and sang like choruses of angels with sore throats, and the marsh marigolds were opening like shavings of sun on the brown river where the tadpoles danced and the blood-suckers lay slimy and low, waiting for the boys’ feet.
It was a delight to experience this classic of Canadian literature.
(The Apollo imprint will be publishing the second Manawaka book, A Jest of God, in March.)
With thanks to Blake Brooks at Head of Zeus/Apollo for the free copy for review.