Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke

Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned… against my TBR pile. I had plenty of good reads waiting for me there. I had plenty of reviews begging to be written. But then I went to the library and saw this book just freshly in:

MindofWinterI remembered the intriguing review of this book that I read over on Caroline’s blog, so I couldn’t resist. I brought it home on Wednesday, started it that very evening, had to lay it aside during the day on Thursday but woke up early this morning to finish it. And I don’t regret it gate crashing my party at all! But it’s going to be quite a lengthy review, so be brave! It got me so busy analysing it from all angles.

It’s the kind of novel where nothing much happens: essentially, it’s about a mother and a daughter alone in a house in a snowstorm. Yet the suspense is so cleverly built up, so well handled, that you find yourself unable to let go. It will haunt you even after you put it down. It’s a bit like a well-made horror film (although there is really no overt horror here, it’s all in the mind – of the protagonists and of the reader). The chill factor is cranked up and, just as you think you can handle it no more, or that it’s nearing an explosion, things revert back to normality. Or a semblance of normality. You start to question everything, because you begin to realise that the narrator, poet and mother Holly Judge, may not be your most reliable witness or interpreter of events.

Cover of hardback edition. Which do you prefer?
Cover of hardback edition. Which do you prefer?

Yet it’s not really a novel to be rushed through. I will probably go back and read it again to really savour the language and the nuances. Every interaction and each sentence seems to be loaded with additional meaning. The author is a poet as well as a novelist, and you can feel her loving attention to details and to the unsayable.

There is so much tension between teenage daughters and their mothers, perhaps even more so when it’s an adopted child. I’ve sometimes stared at my own (biological) children and wondered what strange changelings have taken their place in the cradle. It gets even worse during the adolescent years, hence all the stories of teenage vampires and possessions by poltergeists. Yet the book stays well clear of that, although the reader will always bear that in mind as a possibility.

Holly seems besotted with the beautiful girl they adopted from a Siberian orphanage, but there are hints that all is not well, that there are some resentments, some apportioning of blame. Strange incidents have dogged their lives ever since they came back from Russia. Even though she is quick to say:

Not Baby Tatty!… Not Tatty the Beauty. Gorgeous Russian dancer, howler monkey, sweetheart, wanderer, love of their lives. Not Tatiana.

It does seem like the lady protests too much… After all, what person who has a way with words would call their daughter ‘Tatty’? There are many baffling aspects here, many unanswered questions and gaps. For instance, I would like to find out more about the husband Eric, who is conveniently absent for almost all of the book. He never really comes alive in his own right – we perceive him merely as a reflection of Holly’s own obsessions and needs. There is a hint at some point when she reaches his voicemail and hears something unexpected that she suspects him of being unfaithful. There are a few indications that he does not fully understand his wife nor agree with her:

‘Just sit down and write,’ her husband would say, but Eric would never be able to understand this frustration, her frustration, the clear sense Holly had that there was a secret poem at the center of her brain, and that she’d been born with it, and that she would never, ever, in this life, be able to exhume it, so that to sit down and write was torture. It was to sit down with a collar around her neck growing tighter and tighter the longer she sat.

There are many external circumstances to explain Holly’s anxieties: the early deaths of her mother and her siblings, the genetic flaw which has made her opt for exhaustive surgery and rendered her infertile, the fraught process of adoption from Russia, her writer’s block (which has lasted more than a decade). Although she has made it a tradition to celebrate Christmas at her house, preparing for a large gathering of family and friends, she is also resentful of the fact that she is expected to cater for everyone’s needs. She feels desperately lonely when they all cancel on her because of the blizzard, but at the same time there is a secret sense of relief. Yet the many repetitions (which may annoy some readers, but which come with a subtly different interpretation of events each time) show a mind that is stretched too tight.

French cover. Kasischke seems to be more popular in France than in the US.
French cover. Kasischke seems to be more popular in France than in the US.

It seems to me that what Holly craves is perfection: the perfectly healthy body, the perfect family, the beautiful unblemished child, the idyllic lifestyle complete with chicken and roses… and to be the great poet she had thought she would become. Anything that doesn’t quite live up to the ideal is frowned over, worried over or else deliberately avoided. Holly is very good at self-deceit, at looking away when things become too painful. There is a passage in the book expressing her delight with having learnt in her counselling sessions to suppress her feelings by snapping a rubber band whenever she feels overwhelmed. This is understandable self-preservation, since poets tend to feel everything far too acutely. As Sylvia Plath put it:

My head a moon

Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin

Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.

Ultimately, it’s Sylvia Plath who comes to mind when reading this book, although the title itself is taken from a rather chilling Wallace Stevens poem. The opening line of Plath’s ‘Munich Mannequins’ is quoted here and makes for a fascinating, possibly creepy contrast to what I said above about the obsession with perfection:

Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.

Perhaps because the word ‘perfect’ also occurs in the opening line of Plath’s last poem, I rather anticipated the ending of the book, although there were some additional twists which caught me by surprise. However, this is not a book to be read for its suspense alone (although you may find yourself rushing through it as I did) – it’s a book that can be interpreted and appreciated on many different levels.

Oh, and I’ll be watching out for more of Kasischke’s novels and poetry collections!


28 thoughts on “Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke”

  1. This sounds like an engrossing read, Marina. I like the way that you’ve shown three different jackets – I would have picked up the first one in a bookshop, ignored the second and dithered with the third.

    1. I’m really fascinated at how publishers market the books by the covers, and why they sometimes make such different decisions between the hardback and paperback edition. (Maybe the hardback didn’t do as well and they decide to make it more obviously thrillerish for the paperback? See also the difference in covers for Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard).

  2. Agree with Susan – sounds engrossing & intriguing…. in particular the references to Sylvia Plath… I’ve got The Bell Jar & The Happenings of SP on my next round of #TBR20 so will look out for this too

    1. I love both poetry and thrillers, and this worked for me particularly on the poetry level (perhaps it shows what a twisted mind I have that I half worked out what was going on).

  3. Ok, I’m sold! And I totally agree with Susan read the covers – my reaction would have been the same. The difference in covers between countries fascinates me (I wonder if they have market research panels about them??) as well as, as you mention, changing the covers – as we were discussing last week, regarding the really bad decision made to change the A Pleasure And A Calling cover! I must have a look at the various Apple Tree Yard covers…while I’m investigating this book! Great review! You flew through the book, and wrote a great review, so quickly!

  4. Wow – this sounds like an amazing read – although also a very intense one. I think authors have to be so brilliant to write books where ‘nothing happens’ and yet at the same time everything changes.

  5. Oh, this does sound absorbing, Marina Sofia! I would guess that nearly everyone could relate to the tension between teens and their parents. And sometimes those ‘slow burn’ stories can be the most powerful and effective. I like the context too.

  6. I love your review. And I’m so glad you liked it as much as I did. I felt a bit bad that I rushed through it so quickly because it would deserve some close reading. I like the parallels you found with Sylvia Plath. That last one about perfection is spot on.
    It’s such a clever, eerie book and I know I’ll read more of her.
    And I also think it’s amazing that it’s so short. It feels so complex.
    I didn’t realize what a strange choice the abbreviation “Tatty” is. Now I’m almost in the mood to read it again.

    1. I knew I’d heard that abbreviation before – there’s a Scottish soap (River City) with a nurse from Eastern Europe in it called Tatiana, and everyone calls her “Tatty” – and that’s in Scotland, where it’s what everyone calls potatoes! (In my defence, I only watch it sometimes, and that’s as my cousin is in it – it’s not very good!)

    2. Some reviewers were saying that they thought there was too much repetition, it could have done with some editing and that it would have worked better as a short story. I have to admit I thought that initially until I got it that the point of the book is the style itself, rather than the plot. But it is, in fact, quite short, as you say.

  7. I love how you’ve analysed this book, Marina. It sounds like a very clever and finely balanced novel – I can feel the tension in your review. Do you think it will help you with your own writing? You’ve clearly thought about it very deeply.

    As for the covers, I’m with Susan and crimeworm. The first one is my favorite by quite a long way.

    1. Mine too.
      Very different writing style from my own – or at least from the novel I am currently writing. Which is as it should be. I was a bit ‘oh, Russian orphanage, we’ve seen it all before’ (Anna Jaquiery also handles that theme in ‘The Lying Down Room’, for instance), but it was unexpected… and kept growing on me after I’d finished.

      1. Now that’s a powerful accolade… That a book grows on you after finishing it! *sits on hands* *must resist*

  8. I always love reading a review of a book that has taken the reviewer by surprise! This sounds fascinating, and I can see why the poetic aspects of it would make it appeal to you particularly.

  9. I’ve wanted to read this author for a long time… but I am also a prisoner of a giant TBR pile (OK, I cheat too…). I had started to read a sample of one her books some months ago, thanks to Google books and free book samples, and it was absolutely fascinating. Not horror, but something very ominous about it.

  10. You’re right, she’s huge in France. Her novels are everywhere.
    I’ve seen Caroline’s review, now yours. Great book, apparently.

  11. Great review, Marina, I really like the sound of this. With everyone on the book jackets too; it’s amazing what a difference they can make to your perception of the book.

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