I’m so glad I came upon Heavenali’s Mary Hocking Month and discovered the brittle beauty of the novel The Very Dead of Winter and its cast of eccentric characters.With her wry humor and sharp eye for social comedy Mary Hocking can be firmly placed in the tradition of British women writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, Susan Townsend Warner, Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark.
Take a dysfunctional family, put them in a snowed in cottage at Christmas, with one of them slowly dying, and watch what will happen. I can guarantee you it will never be boring. The sisters Florence and Sophia used to spend their childhood holidays at the cottage. Now, in their sixties, they have come here for a special family reunion. Sophia is the owner of the cottage; Sophia’s sister Florence, her dying husband Konrad and their grown-up children Nicholas and Anita are guests.
What would be a testing moment for any family turns into a sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious adventure. With the exception of Sophia and Konrad, these are some of the most selfish, narcissistic people I’ve ever come across in a novel. Florence is a master manipulator but she’s not very subtle, which leads to hilarious moments. Anita, her daughter, a child psychologist who doesn’t like children, has been under her thumb her whole life. Being with her mother is like being on a battle field when both parties are too tired to strike. They say the nastiest things in the world to each other but they can’t really fight openly.
“My mother is too big for me: She dwarfs everyone around her – except my father,” Anita shouted in to the wind. “There’s never any peace where she is, nowhere I can feel I am me. All my childhood I had to stay clenched tight, ready to parry thrusts from my mother.”
Nicholas isn’t any less dysfunctional he just handles it differently and doesn’t really communicate with any of them.
The book offers wonderful character portraits and an abundance of scenes I’m not likely to forget. In one instance, Florence decides to go to church in the middle of the night, right through the snowed in forest. What would be challenging during the day in summer turns into a dangerous expedition. Anita, although she’s terribly annoyed with her mother, feels obliged to go with her. Of course, it’s far too exhausting and Florence collapses in the middle of the woods. She’s a heavy woman and slender Anita isn’t capable of carrying her. Luckily they stumble over a half-frozen pony, and because she has no means to guide the animal, Anita takes drastic measures. I’m not going to reveal what she does. It’s nothing tragic, just wildly crazy.
Florence is a great character, she’s scheming and manipulative, driven by fear of abandonment, which makes her do foolish things. She lives in constant disappointment with everyone around her, always expecting them to serve her narcissistic purposes. She’s only interested in what people can be or do for her, but takes no interest in their personalities. She has no idea for example who her husband is, where he came from – he is German – or what his dreams and hopes are. Once it’s obvious he will die, filled with the horror of future loneliness, she clumsily tries to capture a widower who lives near by. The ensuing scenes are some of the funniest. Desperate as she is, she even thinks she can manipulate her grown-up children to come back to live with her. One of her favourite techniques is finding her own faults in everyone else.
“Dear God,” Florence said. “What has happened to me?”
Standing there, in the center of the room, it was as if she had come on stage to find herself in an unfamiliar play. She was, above all else, a performer, and to find that she had got the performance wrong was deeply disquieting.
I really liked The Very Dead of Winter are great deal. Not only for its wry humour and psychological insight, but also for some lovely descriptions. It’s not a flawless novel, there are a few instances of shifty point of view, but that didn’t diminish the experience one bit. I’ll certainly read more of Mary Hocking, might even re-read The Very Dead of Winter.
I leave you with two final quotes, one from the beginning of the novel, the other can be found towards the end:
The beginning of the journey had been enchanting. Porcelain blue sky and the sparkling white canopy transformed dingy streets into fantasies of unimaginable purity and, passing out of town, they came to broad fields where sunlight reflected the trellis of branches like veins across the snow.
She stood there a long time while the shadows crept towards her, deeps of blue from which a tree stump rose like the funnel of a sunken steamer. On the other side of the hedge, and between the bars of the gate, the sharpness of outline blurred into a mist of pink and grey shot through here and there with a shee of palest turquoise.