Winter

In the bleak midwinter, I suggest you curl up with a book. I realise most reserve their peak reading weeks for summer, when they’re on holiday, but reading on your sofa by the fire with a cuppa knocks spots off beach reading. Winter nights are long and dark and the weather’s mostly rotten; it’s the ideal season to get cosy and lose yourself in a book, particularly now, after Christmas, when you’ve probably overdosed on both television and human company.

Those who aren’t fond of winter might be inclined to choose books that transport them out of the dark, damp gloom of the season and into a brighter and sunnier world. I’m not one of those people, and have always sought out winter reads that really evoke the season for me.

Few books can be lovelier to read in winter than John Masefield’s The Box of Delights. Opening with a boy on a steam train, rolling through the freezing English countryside on his way to spend the Christmas holidays with his exuberant cousins, it’s got everything you could possibly want in a winter book: snow, nostalgia, eeriness, candlelit cathedrals, Christmas Eve, hearty Blytonesque meals and rip-roaring adventure. From the moment Kay Harker meets the mysterious Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlings, who entrusts him with the precious ‘box of delights’ itself to be kept safe at all costs from the splendidly villainous Abner Brown and his duplicitous sidekicks, we’re sucked into a magical world in which ‘the Wolves are Running’.

As you’d expect from a book written by a Poet Laureate, the use of language in The Box of Delights is splendidly evocative, whether Masefield is describing the pagan world of Herne the Hunter or filling the children’s dialogue with splendidly vivid 1930s slang. Along with the similarly eerie-but-cosy The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston – which coincidentally also begins with an orphaned boy on a steam train on his way home for the holidays – The Box of Delights is a winter must-read for kids and adults alike.

As anyone who has ever scared themselves out of their own pants watching the BBC’s old MR James adaptations at Christmas knows, winter is a time for ghost stories. There’s something about those long nights, howling winds and creeping mist that just makes the winter the right time for scares, and few stories could be scarier – or wintrier, come to that – than Dark Matter by Michelle Paver.

Set on an Arctic expedition in the 1930s, Dark Matter is narrated by Jack Miller, one of four men intending to spend a year studying the tiny Svalbard island of Gruhuken. Jack is a compelling and convincing narrator in every way, right down his simmering class-driven resentment of his colleagues; he’s not always likeable, but as the story progresses, it’s impossible not to identify with him. Initially dismissing the sightings of a strange, ugly figure stalking the snowy wastes of the island as merely an ‘echo’, Jack eventually finds himself sitting out the perpetual darkness of a Svalbard winter alone…when the horrors really begin. The Arctic landscape is as much a character in Dark Matter as Jack and the other explorers, and it’s just as richly rendered.

Other Nordic delights ideal for winter reading include The Blue Fox, by the Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón. An often melancholic, frequently baffling and yet oddly uplifting tale, it has that quiet, mystical quality of a cold, still winter night, the same bewitching mix of soft beauty and harsh, unforgiving coldness. Read this one on one of those days when it feels like the thick frost will never melt, or the world has been confusingly muffled and blurred by an overnight snowfall. In The Blue Fox, daylight hours are brief and pale, and the Northern Lights dance after sunset. The cold bites, the ice glitters and the softly treacherous snow plays strange tricks on the mind.

Set in the 1880s, it’s barely more than 100 pages long, yet seems to have the epic quality of the Norse sagas, as well their almost matter-of-fact magic. For me, it also brought to mind Alan Garner’s Thursbitch, an equally dizzying dip into psycho-geography and shamanism.

Those readers old enough to remember the tail end of the Cold War may remember the days when we were all terrified of a ‘nuclear winter’. I can only assume that this fear is partly responsible for two excellent novels set in wintry dystopias: Far North by Marcel Theroux and Anna Kavan’s Ice.

Far North’s narrator Makepeace Hatfield is the lone survivor of a former pioneer community in Siberia. We never learn what unspeakable disaster has left the world such a bleak place, where only the furthest northern regions can be – barely – populated, and it hardly seems to matter: what’s important is Makepeace’s matter-of-fact struggle for survival in a book peppered with startling revelations of various magnitudes. I couldn’t claim there’s remotely cosy and uplifting about Far North: it’s a pretty relentless story of desperation and loneliness, so possibly not one for SAD sufferers, but the novel begins and ends with a suggestion, at least, of new life, and a little flicker of hope glimmers in the winter darkness.

The author of Ice, the late Anna Kavan, was apparently addicted to morphine and suffered from periodic bouts of mental illness. Upon reading Ice, some would say that it shows in this ambiguous science-fiction novel. A paranoid narrator provides an often hallucinatory account of pursuing an unnamed ‘ice maiden’ through a frustratingly impassable frozen police state. Lots of people have lots of theories about what Ice is really about; my advice is to read it and make up your own mind, but be warned that you’ll probably change it again upon each re-reading.

More winter reads:

The Secret History by Donna Tartt – only slightly wintry in fact, but for some reason I can’t conceive of reading this book in the summer. The narrator’s experience of hypothermia staying in an old mill with a hole in the roof will make you deeply grateful for your central heating.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis – needs no introduction, and yes, Lewis has many a critic, but if you can’t enjoy the moment when the White Witch’s perpetual winter (‘but never Christmas’) melts into spring, you probably don’t have a soul.

The Midwinter of the Spirit by Phil Rickman – a page-turning thriller set in snowed-in Herefordshire, the second of eleven novels about troubled Church of England exorcist and chain-smoking single mum Merrily Watkins. Atmospheric, gripping and pacey.

The Long Winter – one year, the Ingalls family of Little House On The Prairie fame endured a winter that lasted for seven months in an isolated pioneer community in South Dakota. This is the story of their survival, their resourcefulness and the seemingly inexhaustible spirit that gets them through the ordeal.

Joanne Sheppard

The photos in this article were original pictures taken by Lisa Sheppard

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to download from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.