Let me start with a provocative question: Can a book be so literary that it fails at being a book?
Midwinterblood is full of the sorts of things I’ve hardly thought about since my days as an English major: tropes, motifs, archetypes, foreshadowing, even an ekphrastic device (ok, I had to look that one up, but it’s there; it’s a work in one medium commenting on a work in another medium, here prose commenting on a painting). It’s also told in reverse chronological order, as a series of short pieces that move back in time and seek to illuminate one another and some deeper thematic scope.
Sometimes it’s so full of these things that they seem to crush any cohesive narrative, but at the same time there’s a nimble literary magic happening here that has garnered five starred reviews* and make this one feel like a serious contender.
I’ve read Midwinterblood twice now. I’ve marveled, I’ve complained, I’ve taken extensive notes, and I still waver between work of art and stinking hot mess.
This is a high concept piece: a large, sweeping story told through short stories, focused on some Big Ideas, plus the so-daring-I’ll-mention-it-again reverse chronology. It almost requires a second read, provided you want to puzzle out all the connections and motifs, not to mention the larger themes (or message? There might be a message here. I’ll come back to that.)
You’d almost expect some dazzling prose supporting all that big picture scaffolding, but the style here is startlingly simple. Lots of description of action, lots of telling to establish backstory and character (hard to avoid with short pieces that also contain a clear linear narrative), and actually the word that came to my mind was boring when I was parsing my thoughts. Boring might be subjective, although I mean it more in the sense of simple and stripped down; no flourishes and a surprising lack of personality in the prose.
Which makes it no surprise that characters are, for the most part, sketches. There are some details that invite the reader to fill in some of the depth, but actually we know almost nothing about any of the incarnations of Eric and Merle, and even less about their internal selves — which is a strange, jarring note in a book about a love so strong it withstands centuries. In fact, in several of the stories the various incarnations never interact: in 2011, they barely interact; in 1944 they aren’t even on the same landmass; in 1848 we see them through several removes (a story that alters almost every detail, relayed after the fact, to another set of listeners who are still one remove from the reader) — although the incarnations interacted in that section, the reader never really lives it; and even in the last section, when their original selves were so in love that they keep coming back and seeking each other (sort of), the narrative never has them interact. He thinks about how he loves her, she cries, and then she lives among the orchids for another hundred years or so without him. Only in three of the 7 iterations is there a relationship that the reader really sees — in the frame story, the 10th century, and in 1902. And of those three, only in one section — 1902 — is the story at all about the relationship, and even then it’s told far more than shown.
This must all be deliberate, right? Sedgwick is no green new author; he’s won a Printz honor and been shortlisted for the Carnegie twice, and has written nearly a dozen YA novels, many of which have been well-received critically. But even if I give the benefit of the doubt that this isn’t just a case of sloppy writing, I find myself thinking it might just be a bad decision: in a book whose explicit thematic scope is love, tempered by a healthy dose of death and rebirth, why keep the reader at a distance, through both what is told and how it is told? Why keep the love off the page so completely? It makes love purely theoretical and mental, despite the fact that the encompassing nature of love recurs as a device that motivates or alters.
Although maybe that’s not what the book is about after all?
Because the most powerful stories, the ones with the most detail, aren’t about romantic love at all. I would argue that 1902, when Merle is a young girl and Eric is an old painter, is the richest story in the book — the relationship is shown, Merle’s internal mind and heart are shown (even if she comes across more as the idea of a precocious and charming child than a fully believable child); 1944 probably runs a close second, and Merle is only in it as David’s child, never seen, while the love that motivates is actually Erik’s love for the deceased Sarah; through David he and Merle are connected, but in such a tenuous, cerebral way that it’s hard to classify it as love in the way the book seems to be about. Perhaps the frame story, which sets up the idea of romance, and the first life, are sleights of hand, distracting from the real issues, and if so, this is a very different book.
(But then what is the underlying meaning? Isolation? Rebirth? Memory? Connection? Actually, maybe that is it, since connection and disconnection are explicitly called out even before Eric Seven meets Merle. But if that is it, it’s buried quite deeply.)
Back to the writing. Sedgwick does some shiny literary-with-a-capital-L writing with the use of motifs that recur in every chapter: the moon, the orchid, and most of all the hare. Hares are a symbol of rebirth (one of those odd things I knew already because I read a lot of mythopoeic writing, but if you want a reference try this essay by Terri Windling), and moons and rebirth and the idea of birth in general (they have a fertility problem) are important in the book. This kind of repeated imagery that is itself full of deeper meta-textual meaning is a literary device, for sure, as is the foreshadowing (in the frame, there are references to colder darker things below and to essential selves that last, to name two instances). But just because it shows up in English classes doesn’t make it deserving of recognition, and the repeated motifs aren’t very subtle — it’s always hares, always stated baldly rather than alluded to or woven in without a lot of fanfare, and always the symbol and not the symbolized. Eric always says some version of “so it is;” variants of the “speak of the devil” phrase also appear over and over. The devices seem less about meaning and more about making sure the reader can’t miss the connections, especially as many of these details do little or nothing to move or deepen the narrative — and since the connections between the various generations of Merle and Eric are tenuous and best, it all comes across as labored. If connection really is what this book is about, the need to force the cross-generational connections is a significant weakness and possibly dooms the entire structure.
Speaking of elements that compromise the structure, there is an uneasy paranormal-or-not strand here, where some sections are clearly fantasy and others appear to be pretty realistic, barring the flower and it’s amazing properties. The 2011, 1944, and 1902 all seem firmly of our world; even the future posited for 2073 is just an extension of our now, and everything else seems to match historical reality aside from the seeming plausibility hole of the museum director rejecting the painting.
(I could go on at length about this. The nutshell version: it’s the heyday of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement and the fantasy illustrator — Rackham, Nielsen, Dulac, etc. The painting described, especially if by an already-famous painter, would have been the opposite of old-fashioned, and you might think any museum director worth his title would have jumped at the opportunity to get his hands on that painting — especially in 1902, as opposed to the actual painting date of 1915, when the painting was really rejected, when the art movements it so clearly comes from were starting to wane. Finally, the painting is splendid (both the real and the described one) but to pretend that it might be historically accurate seems laughable — and was in fact a source of debate about the first one. More info on Wikipedia and all over if you are willing to spend oodles of time wandering the web.)
But then 1848 is a ghost story, for no reason that seems clear, unless it’s to establish the island and its place in the world in the 1840s (a known, if remote, place people go to for health and healing) as well as convey an Eric-and-Merle incarnation. It’s a lovely, chilling little tale, styled very well as a classic ghost story (the late reveal and the shivery twist of the wet skirts); taken on its own, this is Sedgwick’s writing doing what it does best: atmospheric, moody, and tightly woven. But when the story has been seemingly realistic with this minor added element of the flowers, it’s a big change of tone and scope. Suddenly it’s paranormal fantasy. And the 10th century tale is a vampire story, and horror. If every chapter swapped tone so completely this would be a neat narrative device and easy to appreciate as literature, but it reads more like a schism between 1902 and 1848 where the whole premise shifts.
As a meditation on love or connection, or as a long, complex ekphrastic piece (Ode to Midwvinterblot, perhaps?), or even looked at a series of short stories separated from the larger idea of the text as a cohesive entity, there’s much to admire. But as a book, as a single cohesive novel, I find the characters are ciphers, the plot flimsy as hell, the style and setting inconsistent and the thematic scope seemingly focused on asking big questions without actually getting at the questions in any deep way.
I should point out that I’ve read it twice, discussed it in a book club, and had to delete a lot of very emotionally charged writing because somehow I have really strong feelings about this book, even if many of them are troubled, even negative feelings — and eliciting that kind of response is often a sign of strong writing.
I could, in fact, write another 1,800 words.
But I’ve already said a lot. So now that you know how I feel about this one as a Printz contender**, what do you think?
(*Does anyone else ever think some books net a lot of stars because the reviewers just weren’t sure what to do with the book and secretly feared maybe the incomprehensible elements were the fault of being a lousy reader? Some books make me think that we star what we do not understand.)
**Not a contender. Except maybe. But probably not. Although sometimes… no. Unless I mean yes? But mostly no. With a side of doubt.