In her novel "Summer," published earlier this year, Ali Smith writes that the season "isn't just a merry tale. Because there's no merry tale without the darkness. … We head for it instinctually like it must mean something." In her restrained yet exuberant memoir, "Wintering," British writer Katherine May counters Smith as surely as one solstice tilts against the other, evoking an atavistic grace tied to home and hearth, a season of inventory. For May, hunkering down is just another way to roll up her sleeves and get to work.
May and her husband, H, and young son Bert live in Whitstable, on the coast of southeast England, near Canterbury; and she spins an allegory as searching as Chaucer's "The Parson's Tale." The book commences just before her 40th birthday in September 2018, and charts an arc through a winter of personal reckoning. When her husband almost succumbs to appendicitis, with May herself on medical leave, she shifts into wintering mode, rich in portent but also renewal: "The changes that take place in winter are a kind of alchemy, an enchantment performed by ordinary creatures to survive. Dormice laying on fat to hibernate, swallows navigating to South Africa, trees blazing out the final weeks of autumn."
From here the memoir unfolds as a series of monthly essays. May guides us from thermal pools in volcanic Iceland to a Sankta Lucia festival to the beaches near her house. She finds touchstones in the natural world, among swallows and wolves. She flirts with paganism. She muses on childbirth and her diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. She draws on her own passion for literature, with allusions to John Donne, Jenny Diski, C.S. Lewis and Sylvia Plath. As the faces of the season reveal themselves, her own roles as wife and mother deepen.
"The time had come to teach my son to winter," she writes. "We made pirates out of air-drying clay, and walked in the woods to bring home pine cones and berries. We took the train up to London and visited the Natural History Museum to see the dinosaurs in relative solitude … we raged and grieved together."
May's prose has a Rachel Cusk feel — poised, cool, restrained — and yet we sense the narrator jumping out of her skin, a subtle tension that propels us through a story laced with brutal self-honesty. As spring approaches, May takes up singing lessons, her uncertainty with middle C echoing an anxiety about the world to come. The irony, of course, is that May composed her book before the advent of a global health crisis; she could still linger among Christmas shoppers and sauna aficionados, sifting joy from their routines. "Wintering" concludes on notes of cheer and gratitude, but beneath its melody we can also hear a lament for a present that's just slipped through our fingers, like fresh snow.
Hamilton Cain is the author of "This Boy's Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing" and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
By: Katherine May.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 241 pages, $24.