Simon Van Booy
Love Begins in Winter
(Harper Perennial, 2009)
In a letter to the biographer William Hayley, William Blake writes of the thin line between the living and the dead in the minds of those alive to the memory of those who are not:
"Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in remembrance in the regions of my imagination… May you…be more and more persuaded that every mortal loss is an immortal gain. The ruins of time build mansions in Eternity."
Obeying the principles of this visionary, Hayley would have found application for the memory of his son, recently passed, in the form of a future work, conversation, or chance encounter.
The power of the dead over the living—to entomb life, and then perhaps to embolden it—is central to Love Begins in Winter, a poetic novel composed of five individual, yet thematically congruous short stories. In “Tiger, Tiger,” the writings of Dr. Felixson, a deceased Swedish doctor, re-engender the inner life of an aspiring pediatrician from Oregon. Narrating her own reading-induced observations, the pediatrician remarks of her long-term boyfriend:
"Brian is a beautiful child, but he’s not childish. Children are the closest we have to wisdom, and they become adults the moment that final drop of everything mysterious is strained from them. I think it happens quietly to every one of us—like crossing a state line when you’re asleep."
Dr. Felixson’s published work is The Silence After Childhood, a title which encapsulates the raison d’être of the novel. With each story, figures emerge over whom childhood memories have held untold-of psychological sway, dictating—consciously or not—the indifferent conduct of their “adult” lives. The stories of these figures then turn into expressions of the visions which have swayed them, and the revelations these forces yield in the formative company of new contexts. The characters, while traveling across time and place, act in concert with each other through a process of reengagement with the past after a period of allowing the present to become passive to it. In the title story of the work, a concert cellist wanders Quebec City in the wake of another performance haunted by the long-dead ghost of his childhood companion. Stopping by the door of what looks to be a convent—similar in style to his childhood home in rural France—he sees a girl who, seeing him, takes to inscribing a frosted pane. “Then she lifted the candle against the letters she had drawn with her finger: Allez.” And he does, finding rapid love with a stranger in Los Angeles, herself enthralled by the memory of the death of her younger brother.
Allez is the message in a bottle to the narrators, characters, and readers of Love Begins in Winter, and some of the technique of the work is encouraging, such as the recycling of subtle details which bind one story to another. For instance, the lovers in the first story fly kites together on a windy beach (“The force pulling on me was more powerful than I could have imagined. But I was the one who held on”); the pediatrician in “Tiger, Tiger” reads a metaphorical passage from Dr. Felxison’s journal (“There’s no going back to childhood unless you’re somehow tethered to it and can feel the weight of it against your body like a kite pulling at you…”); in the same story, Brian’s mother, coping with the end of her marriage, leaves an alcohol stain on the living-room carpet resembling “a map of Italy”; in “The Missing Statues,” an American diplomat confesses to a Polish priest on a bench “at the edge of St. Peter’s Square” in Rome. Where such details are detected, a playful narrative unity is achieved.
Yet this approach, in combination with the life-affirming bent of the work, falls short of making the characters full-fledged beings, ghosts or otherwise. Finding individuals in a state of transition, one might also expect to find more of a struggle, more of a mystery to their process of illumination. But there is no difficulty or obscurity to their chaptered lives; the characters come across as existing in a protected field where everything that happens is an observable given, and none of what happens is exposed to the frustrations—epic and banal—that typically accompany change. Complication is a thing of the past or the future; the present is an enchanted episode, occurring at a distance from the continuity of conflict that could have brought these characters—all of whom have definite potential—closer to the reader.
After his performance in Québec City, when asked if his cello needs transportation back to the hotel, the cellist in “Love Begins in Winter” replies that an escort was previously arranged. From this exchange, one might guess that his instrument was in for a bumpy ride through the night; yet it makes it back to Chateau Frontenac safe and sound, unscathed by some unforeseen element which might break it from its case.