A small town in rural Minnesota. A family struggling with a history of alcoholism, mental illness and suicide. And snow – lots and lots of it.
The Center of Winter is Marya Hornbacher’s first novel, but she is no stranger to writing on sensitive topics: her first book was much acclaimed Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. What comes out in her writing here is nuance, attention to detail and profound compassion: each of the central characters in the novel is given a distinct voice and provided ample space to articulate the whole complexity of their feelings and emotions.
In spite of the tragic circumstances the novel describes, those are more of a starting point that take Claire and her children Kate and Esau on a path of recovery after the death of Arnold, Claire’s husband and the kids’ father. How the three survivors go on to rebuild their lives, dealing not only with their grief, but also with everything else from the small-town gossip to their own sense of guilt and inadequacy, sounds both realistic and inspirational. The novel begins as a family tragedy, but let’s just say that’s not how it ends.
Another thing I found interesting about this novel are its less conspicuous characters. Firstly Arnold, the father, who remains present throughout the book in spite of his physical absence; in a paradoxical way, his presence is amplified by his sudden and irretrievable departure. Those who have experienced personal loss of that magnitude will be able to relate to this phenomenon.
And secondly, there’s the state of Minnesota, which I felt to be a character in its own right as I was reading the book. Its small towns and iconic landscapes, harsh winters and the legacy of hard working German immigrants, among others… Here they all coalesce into a whole; to me as an outsider who’s never stepped foot anywhere near the American Midwest the setting felt very authentic.
My feelings were validated when I got to the author’s notes and reflections at the back of the book. In the section “My Love Song to the North” Hornbacher reveals that some of the key locations in the book are real: the towns of Motley and Nimrod, County Road 10, even the bar that was something of Arnold’s second home (albeit by a different name)… You can tell by the subtle ways in which the author weaves Minnesota into her storytelling just how much she loves it.
This is how she ends the section I’ve just mentioned: “The Center of Winter deals with the pain, joy, and daily life of the place I live, a place where people have come from many countries to make their way, where kids bundle up in snowsuits and leap into the snow and lie on their backs and make snow angels and run inside again at night and sleep the deepest kind of dreamless sleep.”
In spite of difficult and sensitive topics it deals with, The Center of Winter was a wonderful read and I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of Hornbacher’s writing.