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Men’s rage and regret in a cold season of snow: Michele Magwood chats to Fiona Melrose about her debut novel Midwinter

By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

Fiona Melrose (Little Brown, R295)

It is rare for a debut novel to land with such assurance, with such a distinctive voice and sapient wisdom. South African author Fiona Melrose, pictured, wrote the book while living on a farm in Suffolk. She’d thrown in her job as an emerging markets analyst in London, finding the environment “too aggressive, too hyper-masculine”, and had retreated to her brother’s farm where she lived on her own for some time.

“It was incredibly lonely and isolating. The locals were suspicious of me and the physical work involved was astonishing. I was reading books on stock fencing for beginners and then banging poles into the frozen earth with blistered hands. It was unbelievably difficult physically and emotionally. There was nothing else to do except write a book about it, really.”

Midwinter is the result, the story of a father and son, Landyn and Vale Midwinter. They are Suffolk farmers, simple and plain-living whose moroseness hides a simmering rage. Ten years before, their beloved wife and mother, Cecelia, had died in an ill-advised sojourn in Zambia. Neither has come to terms with it, and when Vale is involved in a shocking accident at the beginning of the story, the dam of their anguish rips. Over the course of a bitter winter they clash, but because Melrose writes from their first person viewpoint we feel immense sympathy for them, for their interior wretchedness. Vale seems taciturn, for example, yet he repeatedly tells us “I had nothing I knew how to say.”

“They’re confronted with all kinds of trauma that they hadn’t addressed at the time,” Melrose says. “It suddenly comes into very sharp focus and they try to navigate a way through without completely falling apart.”

Midwinter is as much an examination of masculinity as it is of blame and grief. Melrose presents us with different versions in various characters: some are mute and violent, or gentle and steady, there are heroic soldiers and sage old men and any number of drink-fuelled young bucks. “I met a few of these boys in Suffolk and I thought they seemed so fundamentally unparented, not held in any kind of way. There was no safety net for that kind of chaotic energy.”

There are female characters, too, of course, but for Melrose it is nature itself, the land and animals that provide what she feels is “the feminine aspect, to balance the hyper-masculine energy of the characters”. Of particular importance is a wild fox, which Landyn believes is the familiar of Cecelia, watching over them.

Melrose’s writing is distinguished by striking descriptions: a cold gust “like a witch’s slap”; the air in a funeral service “as black as leprosy”; Landyn carries his regret “like those old harnessed ploughs, taking every last muscle and gritted tooth to get the blades through the clay’.

What distinguishes it too is the rich vernacular of the characters. Landyn calls himself “a duzzy old whoop”, Vale maunders around, lurking “in a constant mubble-tubble”. Cecelia’s hands had the “farn-tickle of the sun’.

Melrose has an acute ear for dialogue, something she attributes to her severe dyslexia and dyscalculia. “I think your brain makes routes around. Strangely enough I have perfect pitch musically, and what I do is write what I hear. The grammar’s probably incorrect and I spell phonetically, so a lot of it is quite intuitive. I rely a lot on rhythm and how a character breathes. So for Landyn I wrote in long breaths, but Vale is constantly on the edge of some kind of outburst so I wrote him in a staccato, short-breathed way.”

Eventually — and only just — will father and son reach some equilibrium.

Teeming with nature, pulsating with rue, Midwinter is evisceratingly emotional. Its sorrow will scrape you to the bone, but ultimately it warms you to the bone, too. It is an astounding debut.

Follow Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Listen to Fiona Melrose’s interview on the Magwood on Books podcast.

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