Like a lot of people, I have a real affection for foxes. I guess it’s something about the bushy tails and that beautiful red/copper colour of their fur that makes them so attractive. One of the things I love most about London is coming home late at night and seeing a fox trotting down an empty street. At the heart of Fiona Melrose’s debut novel “Midwinter” is a female fox that lives on the periphery of a farm inhabited by a father and son. She’s only seen occasionally by the father Landyn who feels a connection to her and a growing sense of protectiveness as he notices her becoming ill. The fox is just a small part of the story but she seems to represent something much bigger. The missing part of this family is the mother Cecelia who died in a brutal way while they were living in Zambia several years before. Landyn and his son Vale never discuss the emotional repercussions of this traumatic loss, but a horrific accident between Vale and his friend Tom which happens at the start of the novel forces the father and son to confront their shared grief. “Midwinter” is a beautifully written novel that movingly shows the way lives become embittered when communication breaks down and how new routes for connection can be formed over time.
I really respond to fiction that sympathetically deals with individuals and families facing hard economic realities – something many of us struggle with in our everyday lives but I find that this is often left out of contemporary literature. Like many British farmers, Landyn Midwinter finds that his profits are steadily dwindling over a number of years to the point where he’s facing bankruptcy and this has a painfully difficult impact upon his home life. It’s astutely observed that “Everyone has a fine and deep-bedded family when the cash is rolling in but take that away, and you’ll find out soon enough how well the centre holds.” In a desperate attempt to save his family and make a new start he uproots them and responds to an ad seeking people experienced in agriculture to manage farms in Zambia. Here his family faces a whole new set of challenges which build to the tragic loss of Cecelia.
It’s impressive the way Melrose so fully explores the particularly masculine way the father and son deal with their feelings. The story alternates between Vale and Landyn’s perspectives which gives a rounded understanding of the individual emotional pain each man is suffering from and why they aren’t able to express this to the other. Many men deal with emotional suppression through drinking and violence. This is what Vale resorts to because he can’t rationally explain the residual anger he feels towards his father over the loss of his mother and it leads to unfortunate consequences. But there is also a touching tenderness to the way he is aware of his father’s peculiarities and does small things to support him. Although Landyn has a really nurturing personality and fiercely protects the welfare of animals, he’s not able to bring himself to discuss his son’s anger or openly express his own mourning.
One of the most moving passages comes when Landyn contemplates the way both he and his son are acting irrationally because of their grief. He reasons that “Hauntings aren’t about being afraid, they’re about longing. If you don’t crave the thing that stalks you it’s just a thing, or a person or a fox, maybe, because it has no meaning. What a haunting is, though, is all your longing for someone in a shape you can wrap your brain around.” The mental projection of the mother looms large in their present lives and the reason she torments them both so much is that they’re not acknowledging to each other that she’s there. Vale longs for her guidance and Landyn is steeped in loss, but without openly discussing these difficult issues they give in to destructive impulses.
Fiona Melrose artfully handles the oftentimes brutal reality of rural life and these characters’ violent outbreaks with a poetic and philosophical beauty. I was totally immersed in the story which slides back and forth in time to show the conflict and scarred existence of this father and son. Interesting James Kelman’s most recent novel “Dirt Road” also shows a father and son who find it difficult to emotionally deal with the loss of the mother of the family. However, the story and the statements Melrose make are very different. I highly recommend “Midwinter” – especially as an absorbing read as we enter the colder months of the year and it’s worth mentioning that as an object I think the book has an exceptionally beautiful cover.