Friday, 26 July 2013

Book Review | Winter Damage by Natasha Carthew

The moor in winter is no place for a girl travelling alone. It's cold out there. There's snow, but it's the wind that grabs hold of your heart and freezes it.

Just before Christmas, Ennor Carne sets out on a quest to find her missing mother. The home she leaves is a broken-down trailer, with her sick dad and her little brother, and a few skinny cows that's left of what was once a family farm. She takes warm clothes, what food she can find, a map and a gun — but nothing, nothing can prepare her for what lies ahead.

Ennor is just fourteen years old. She thinks she knows where she's going and what she's looking for. She doesn't know anything.


As abhorrent as the thought is—of billions dead and the world wasted, whether by natural disaster or man-made calamity—it's fair to say that folks today take a certain pleasure in positing the apocalypse.

The appeal is apparent if we begin by admitting that the lot of modern life is lacking; that we are all dissatisfied with ourselves in one way or another. The end of everything, then, represents a chance to change. To break with the people we have been in the past, and be... better, I guess. So the world goes to war and we wonder: will we suddenly discover hidden depths, reserves of inner strength? The polar ice caps melt and overnight we could be leaders—heroes, even!

Fantasising about the apocalypse is a peculiar pastime, perhaps, but not pointless. At the very least, it begs an arresting theoretical question: how would we cope with the end of world as we know it?

Winter Damage's protagonist Ennor Carne counts.

A fourteen year-old farmer's daughter whose dad has seen better days, and whose autistic brother Trip requires round-the-clock care, Ennor takes "comfort in the counting of things." (p.239) To count is of course to take control in some small way, to impose order upon chaos, and there's been a lot of that latter in her life lately.
Since the last outbreak of foot-and-mouth things had turned worse from the top of the country to the bottom. Ennor didn't remember it all so well. She was only seven at the time and losing the prize cattle was the least of their problems once they had lost the farmhouse and the land and her dad went half mad with the misery and then the drugs. (p.7)
Squirrelled away in the wilderness, the Carne family have managed to make ends meet in the seven years since, but now the money's run out, and the council are threatening to take the kids into care while the country descends into a modern-day dark age.

Nearing the end of her teenage tether, Ennor remembers her mother. Her mother, who upped sticks and abandoned the family with a defiant glint in her eye long before the collapse, as if in obscene agreement, of civilised society. Against good reason, Ennor imagines her mother might be able to save them, or at least lend a helping hand.

She knows where she went—not that far away from the farm, in fact—so as opposed to waiting for the world to right itself somehow, she packs a bag, leaves her brother with her best friend Butch, and journeys alone into the wintry wilderness.
Her mother waltzed into her dream with her sanity intact and happiness for everyone was a given. [But] the merry flight of fantasy soon turned shocking and unbearable and Ennor sat balled and cold and insignificant to the world, the past hanging like an old damp coat hooked to the back of a door, lifeless and rotten. She pressed her hands over her eyes and dug her fingers in close to popping, pinning what couldn't be explained to the back of her mind to stop herself from crying. (p.55)
Needless to say, things don't go according to plan. Within hours of setting out she's injured her ankle badly, lost her map, and killed another kid—and winter has only just begun. If Ennor doesn't exhaust her scant supplies and starve, she'll surely freeze to death without shelter. But other people are seeking shelter as well... and other people are to be avoided at all costs.

Not because they've turned into zombies or anything along those lines—let's be clear about that from the start. Indeed, excepting the apocalyptic elements of the premise, there's nothing speculative about this novel at all. Its world is our world, albeit broken, and its people, equally, are our people: good and bad but mostly both, though the desperate times Winter Damage mines have demanded they take desperate measures.

On the surface, the situation is not dissimilar to that Cormac McCarthy explored in The Road: an appropriate point of reference for Winter Damage's first third if you can imagine that haunting tale told from the boy's perspective rather than the man's, and substitute its skeletal North American setting for the ghostly Cornish coast.

That said, Winter Damage is a much more optimistic novel than The Road. A surprising assertion, I'm sure, given how unbearably bleakly it begins, not to mention how horrendous Ennor's early hardships are. But overall, her journey charts a positive path. She makes a fabulous friend, Sonny, who shows her that there's still warmth to be had, however scant; a wonderful world to turn, however far it's fallen. Sonny gives Ennor hope again; instils in her a promise more potent than the prospect that her runaway mother will in any way save the day.
They laughed and Ennor remarked on what a ragtag family they had made and her words brought comfort to the others because that was what they had become. No matter what the future held, they would have that for ever and always stitched between them. (p.249)
Even at its most miserable—and oh, there are many low moments—Winter Damage is a truly beautiful book, bolstered in large part by a delicate cast of characters and a sublime sense of setting, but what sets it apart in the end is its impeccable prose. Hard to believe, really, that this is Natasha Carthew's first novel. She's published three volumes of poetry before, though, and it shows. Her words are carefully weighted: her descriptions, her dialogue, and the dialect in which she renders said inform a multitude of moods marvellously, meanwhile the mounting sound and essential sense of her sentences rings out as right in a manner most novelists never even attempt.

Small but perfectly formed, Winter Damage is the sort of book that begs to be read out loud, even if there's no-one else near to hear it. It's a stone-cold stunner with an uncommonly humble heart, and I urge you to take in into yours, too.


Winter Damage
by Natasha Carthew

UK Publication: August 2013, Bloomsbury
US Publication: January 2014, Bloomsbury USA

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1 comment:

  1. This looks like a very interesting book for me. I added it to my next shopping list. Thank you for pointing it out, Niall! :)