It is officially British wintertime. The air is brittle and the frost ices the morning grass. We have turned our backs on the long, free days of summer and are looking down the tunnel towards Christmas, the relentless nights falling too soon, before we have had a chance to be done with each day. We have a choice to either mourn what is gone for another year, or embrace crisp winter walks and cosy log fires. And what better way to spend a chilly winter night than curled up inside with a great book?
Many of us find it difficult to find time to read, our lives jam-packed with work and family, with precious little space left for “me time”. What time there is, we feel ought to be spent on more important things – exercise, catching up with friends, quality time with loved ones. But sometimes, we are entitled to simply stop and read, escape to another world which is not our own and walk in the footsteps of another, whether real or imaginary. Reading is not only knowledge, but it can also give us perspective on our own lives and fire our inner creativity. Reading is a workout for the soul.
For me, reading is not just a hobby. Like food (kit kats) and drink (red wine), I cannot survive a day without devouring at least a few pages from my current novel. The two books that I have chosen for this article are seasonal favourites, selected for their beautiful evocation of both character and natural landscape, with plots that drive the story forward and keep us transfixed when we might otherwise opt to switch out the light and turn in for the night.
Although The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey and A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale share a commonality of geography and time (The Snow Child is set in 1920s Alaska and A Place Called Winter is set in Canada at the turn of the century), they could not, on the face of it, be more different.
The Snow Child is a story where the lines between reality, magic and fantasy are blurred. It is based on a Russian folk-tale which was first translated by Arthur Ransome, about a childless couple who make a snow child that comes to life. In contrast, A Place Called Winter gives us an historic insight into the European trend towards Canadian emigration at the turn of the century, told through the story of Harry Cane, a fictional character (based on one of Gale’s ancestors) who flees England to escape the repercussions of his exposure as a homosexual. However, notwithstanding the contrast of plot, both books tell of the brutality of living in a harsh natural environment, in a time when life was about animal survival but people were still people and needed human love, as well as food and water, to stay alive.
Both are books that you can’t put down, imbued with sadness that is real and recognisable, notwithstanding how far outside our own lives they sit. Ivey and Gale share a talent for depiction of both character and landscape; where Gale achieves both credibility and poignancy in his drawing of Cane and his enduring struggle for survival, Ivey is remarkable for her ability to turn a simple folk-tale into a complex and tragic story of love and isolation.
At a time of year when a chill darkness casts its long shadow over this part of our world, both of these novels will warm you up from the inside out.