This book has taken me a while to digest, despite not being an especially long book. Philip Larkin is primarily known for his poetry, but this is a most beautifully written, mysterious, puzzling, and evocative novel. First published in 1947, Mr Larkin intended it to be the second in a loosely linked trilogy, but never completed the third book. This is a stand alone tale in any case, with incredibly good descriptive prose, a mystery that is never explained, and my favourite thing, wonderfully drawn characters. Mum’s copy was brand new, a recent purchase, and I’m fairly sure it was one she had previously read and wanted to read again, but sadly she ran out of time.
The girl in the title is Katherine Lind, and it is her background that provides an unsolved mystery. She is in solitary exile in England but we are never told where from, nor why. I read a review of this novel written by Carol Rumens in the Guardian and agree with her that so many veiled hints are dropped about her origins and past that it is entirely possible Mr Larkin was describing a real person whilst protecting her real identity. Bearing in mind the time frame of the book, the occasional small clues may well be immensely significant – we know that in the ‘winter’ elements she is completely alone and in exile from an un-named European country. A country which Robin Fennel, the pen friend who invited her to stay with his family in England pre-war, was learning the language of, and which he tells her he could have taken her home to in prehistoric times when the Thames flowed into the Rhine. She wears a brown uniform with a small Olympic badge on her first night at dinner with the Fennel’s. And tragedy in her immediate past is implicit, all of which adds up to the strong possibility that she escaped from Nazi Germany, perhaps she is from a Jewish family.
This inconclusive past only enhances the fascination of the book, as we live through a single, but eventful, day and night of her lonely and very introspective life during a bitterly cold winter, while sharing her memories of three weeks in a magnificent summer some years previously. Both seasons spring to life from the pages of the book, as do the other opposing themes of war and peace, and a holiday in summertime Home counties England as opposed to forced exile in the frozen North.
Alone, in an unidentified Northern city in the depths of winter, Katharine works in a chilly, dim provincial library with a loathed and detested boss. Seeing a death notice in the paper for the child of her school days pen friend Robin Fennel’s sister, she writes to the family, and has heard back from the mother. On this particular cold, dreary winter Saturday, Katherine is asked to accompany a colleague with toothache home; unexpectedly finding themselves at Katherine’s bleak lodgings, a note has arrived from Robin himself announcing his imminent arrival, and away we go, deep into the story of their relationship.
There is a delightfully poignant passage about the hideous boss, Mr Anstey, and his sad, secretive relationship with a woman whom Katherine encounters completely accidentally and which with exquisite finesse delivers an additional level of disillusionment and dismay to the novel, a subtext to Katherine’s own disappointment in love. It is not easy to find empathy for Katharine, but one does gain the sense that she is not the person she could have been, circumstance and ‘the loss of innocence’ have made her who she is, and she no longer really cares very much at all what we think about her. She has become as cold as the winter itself.
Mr Larkin said his theme for this novel was the loss of innocence and its consequences. I believe he achieves his aim, and together with the beauty of his prose and the questions we are left with, A Girl in Winter is a marvellous read. As I said to begin with, it took me some considerable time to process what I had read, but I feel greatly enriched by having read it if that makes sense?
As always, if you would like to add this title to your library, please let me know either on here or the Facebook page and I will happily send it to you. It’s not a light read, but it is a lovely one…thanks Mum.