Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Book Review | A Cold Season by Alison Littlewood

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Cass is trying to rebuild her life after the loss of her soldier husband, and a renovated mill in the picture-perfect village of Darnshaw looks to be the idyllic spot to bring up her traumatised son, Ben.

But the locals aren't as friendly as Cass had hoped, and Ben is beginning to display a hostility she can't understand. Then the blizzards blow in, and Darnshaw is marooned in a sea of snow.

Now, threatened on all sides, Cass finds herself pitted against forces she can barely comprehend. The cold season has begun.


Can you imagine anything more awful than your own flesh and blood turning against you?

Cass can't. And she's been to hell and back already. Reeling from the horrible loss of her husband - the spoils of a cruel and unusual war - Cass wants nothing more than the chance to wipe the slate clean... to start afresh. So she goes back to square one; specifically to the little village where she and her father - a man of the cloth she's long since stopped talking to, for reasons that will become clear over the course of A Cold Season - spent the very beginning of her life. She takes an apartment in an old mill away from the main thoroughfare, recently renovated, and as yet eerily empty... excepting the rats that scratch at the walls when night falls.

But Darnshaw is different - disturbingly different - from the peaceful place Cass remembers. Or perhaps Darnshaw is as Darnshaw always was, and it is this suddenly single mother's memories that are at fault. In any case, Cass's young son Ben, at least, seems to be settling in nicely. He's made a few friends, and taken to sharing -- though exactly what he's been sharing, he won't say. Cass doesn't much approve of the crowd he's fallen in with, and soon she's having second thoughts about this move herself.

There's not a lot she can do about any of the above till the snow lets up, though. The weather has been relentlessly wintry since she and her son arrived: the phones are down, access to the internet with them, and all the roads in and out of Darnshaw are rendered inaccessible. It's almost as if the village has closed in around her... 

A Cold Season is Yorkshire author Alison Littlewood's first novel, and one of the first books to bear the name of the new imprint publishing it; that is to say Jo Fletcher Books, fresh out of Quercus. It's a dark fantasy with dark designs on our hearts, and I dare say it sets a high watermark for both Alison Littlewood and the genre fiction division her impressive debut heralds. Cass and Ben are very well realised characters - as are the parents and teachers and pupils whose paths cross theirs - and the harrowing trials they are put through serve to bring us closer to them, even as mother and son are driven further and further apart. But the real scene-stealer, I think, is Darnshaw.

Per the stark cover art, and the flash of angry red left by Ben, running away again, Darnshaw is a village of vacuum black and icy white... a manifestly monochrome landscape broken only occasionally by "bright splashes of colour emerging from the dim light." (p.26) Usually, yes, they are red, recalling Don't Look Now and a hundred other scary stories, in film and in literature -- and indeed, in video games. In fact, from the impenetrable mist at the outset to the broken roads (see p.177) which prevent Cass and Ben's escape on through the creepy, culty church where the last act culminates, A Cold Season recalls one video game franchise in particular: Silent Hill, a favourite of mine.

Knowing homage or not, Littlewood does rather hammer these images home in the early-going, but cannily - once the scene is set - she leaves Darnshaw to take on a life of its own in our imaginations, and I assure you, it's a place you'll not soon forget.

That said, as is so often the way with narratives concerned with the dead spaces between the horizontal and the vertical, A Cold Season is at its best in the exquisitely deliberate beginning, when the unknown and the inexplicable are presented on their own terms, as opposed to being overburdened by the combined weight of expectation and explanation, as is the case come the sadly harried and somewhat preachy conclusion.

For the larger part, though, A Cold Season is a powerful story about motherhood... about family, and the ties that bind us. Excepting a few missteps that it bears saying plague all and sundry authors in this genre - not merely newcomers, and in any case Alison Littlewood is hardly an amateur - A Cold Season is a terrifically chilling tale. A sterling debut which bodes unspeakably well for its author and beyond.

Highly recommended seasonal reading, in short. And it is the season!


A Cold Season
by Alison Littlewood

UK Publication: January 2012, Jo Fickling Books

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1 comment:

  1. Great review, as always Niall. It sounds like a scary read through ;-)