Laurence Fearnley transports us to places with her writing, whether it be the rocky coast (Reach 2014), wetlands (The Quiet Spectacular 2016), or, in the case of Winter Time, the Mackenzie Basin, in the centre of the South Island. Her characters are always intriguing, and in Winter Time Roland March is wonderfully drawn. He is back in his hometown of Matariki to carry out the awful business of managing the aftermath of a death – sorting out belongings, deciding on funerals or memorials, deciding what to do with the family home. Eddie, his brother, veered off the road into a canal, and Roland is in shock, “God, he missed Eddie.”
Eddie isn’t the first of the family to go. First their father left, then their mother died after a long illness. Roland stayed with his sister and younger brothers till they were old enough for him to go to Christchurch for a brief stint at university. Then his sister Casey died, then the youngest brother Isaac disappeared, presumed drowned. Roland eventually moved to Sydney, and opened Kernel, a wholefoods shop, with his partner Leon. Eddie stayed in Matariki and witnessed the spread of housing around their once secluded property, the new houses vacant for a large part of the year. He was bitter that his town had become a mecca for tourists: “His home was nothing but a series of photo opportunities.”
In Matariki, Roland rides Eddie’s bike, reconnecting with the town and its surrounds: The freezing winds, the treacherous snow falls, the breath-taking views, and the stunning night skies. “If you stood outside at night, the stars appeared to move, and cross the sky, never still, always shifting, one following the other in a constant migration.” Roland thinks of his family who had disappeared one by one just like the stars. And he regrets the time he didn’t spend with Eddie, the small kindnesses he failed to do for him. And he starts to wonder if his death was indeed an accident. And then Roland becomes the target of online abuse.
There is a sense of menace to Winter Time, the reader becomes uneasy along with Roland. He finds footprints, not his, in the snow around the house. He finds out that Eddie’s culling work for the Department of Conservation included the culling of tahr, and that some hunters thought taking tahr was taking what was rightly theirs. Was that motive enough for murder? Along with the tourists came the demand for property, the family home was now worth a fortune, was that a motive for murder? Even the local cop starts seeming a bit off. Roland even wonders, along with the reader, if the disappeared Isaac will re-appear, isn’t that a usual plot twist? “… it would have been wonderful to see him alive, and standing at the door – even if he did have a gun in his hands”.
Roland befriends an acquaintance of Eddie’s, Bay, whom none of Eddie’s friends have heard of, and whose business is renovating old houses. He also meets Mrs Linden down the road, a bossy woman who knew his parents, who hated his mother, and for whom Eddie would do chores. When Roland returns to Sydney, Leon is not very sympathetic to his helplessness regarding the online trolling. Their relationship is becoming quite strained. Roland wants Kernel to be a solid healthy wholefoods shop, Leon wants to expand and take advantage of the growing market for health supplements and remedies such as, in Roland’s terms, “the latest 5G immunity face serum”. Roland can’t seem to express the clarity he feels concerning what he thinks is right, and he is shocked to hear versions of what others think of him.
Roland travels back to Matariki when the family house has been broken into, and again when the online attacks escalate. He is both at home and a stranger in Matariki, he never did fit in as a child or growing up. He recalls his childhood when the horrors of the cold were shared with Eddie, and sort of fun. He recalls with amazement an incident where the three boys scuttled their father’s boat rather than face his anger. He finds traces of Eddie’s life he was completely unaware of. Roland feels unmoored, he bikes through a formless fog hardly knowing where he is going. He stands in the useless shower trying to thaw out, the cold shower curtain stuck to his back. Roland doesn’t recognise when he is in the presence of nasty bitterness, or when he is being genuinely helped.
The reader, and Roland, do find out what is happening eventually, but that isn’t really the heart of the book. At one point I thought it would end without any resolution, and I would have been fine with that, there are enough clues that the reader could choose from several scenarios. However, the resolution does allow Roland a bizarre act born of relief. What made Winter Time so compelling for me was the atmosphere, the landscape, the uncertainty, and Roland’s adriftness. Highly recommended.
I’m not usually interested in stories about grief (because there’s just been so many of them lately!) but this one sounds intriguing.
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