Why did I pick this up?
I wanted to participate in a seasonal book club and this was one of the selected reads for autumn. It’s not particularly autumnish, I would place it more as a winter reading. I did not know anything about Jennifer McMahon before picking this book, and I am not exactly inclined to find out anything about her or her other books after reading The Winter People. Prepare yourself, there’s a lenghtly book review ahead.
What’s the hook?
From the back description it sounded fairly intriguing, with some disappearances and deaths that happened in 1908 in Hall, Vermont which, alongside a mysterious incomplete old diary, are going to impact the lives of a family trying to live off-the grid in the same place in the present day. The action being placed in New England during winter, the old journal and the family trying to live off the grid were the elements that caught my attention.
How’s it written?
I had absolutely no expectation regarding the writing style, yet the book still managed to be a bitter disappointment in this regard. I imagined it would be a fairly easy read but instead what we have is a generic style of writing incapable of creating any atmosphere at all. This book has: weird disappearances, gruesome murders, walking dead children, creepy forests and caves, mysticism, old journals, all of these are good elements for a spooky book….and then there’s the writing that brings all of them together in a big pile of pure boredom.
The novel is interestingly structured with time being intertwined and the story being told from different characters’ point of view, although there is no change in style between them, not even between the 1908 parts and the present parts. I would have expected some minor differences in language when reading the 1908 events.
How’s the opening?
The book presents right away the creepy element of its story: a “sleeper” appears right in the first sentence, so my mind went straight away to Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary”.
Then we have 3 pages introducing one of the main characters, little Sara, and how she first saw a sleeper in the form of her school friend, at whose funeral we are now attending as readers. The author wants to create some tender images with the mother suffering and some snippets from the two girls’ friendship and she’s trying to do that by inserting small details (ex: a lace handkerchief in which the mother is crying, a note passed in school between the two girls). Now, you might ask: what’s wrong with that? Well, the issue is that everything is generic. The details are just for surface, they don’t represent anything and they don’t bring anything to the table. They’re not creating an atmospheric picture of suffering and sadness for the death of a 9-year-old.
Then we go back to the woods where Sara is seeing her friend and runs into her friend’s mother who asks her not to tell anyone what she saw there. And what is the reply to Sara’s question as to why she can’t tell? Quote: “Someday, Sara, maybe you’ll love someone enough to understand.” Uh! I cannot express how much this premonitory, clichéd and condescending reply annoyed me. Plus, it makes a big chunk of the plot predictable, which is not exactly what you want from a mystery novel. And yes, premonitions bring an added element of mystery, but they do need to be somewhat cryptic, which isn’t the case here.
In a nutshell, I just couldn’t care less about this opening. And openings, context and initial character introductions are generally one of my favorite parts in a book. And they are important in this kind of novels, since they’re setting the mood for the rest of the book.
Who are the characters?
Firstly, we have the ones from 1908: Auntie, Sara, Martin, Gertie and some others not so important.
My favorite was Auntie. She’s one of this “witchy” figures, surrounded by a mystic aura: she knows healing herbs, has hunting skills, is of Indian descent, speaks strange languages, has a bone carved ring and a strong passionate personality. I found her to be the most interesting character of all. I don’t really care about Sara, I found her rather annoying. Martin, Sara’s husband, is a character you care about, and feel compassionate about. Gertie (their child) is just a generic little girl which needs to be there for the plot.
Bringing things in the present, we have: Alice (the mother that wants to live off the grid), Ruthie and Fawn (her daughters), Candace (the crazy lady) and Katherine (the useless lady). All of them are quite forgettable and generic, nothing special about any of them, excepting Fawn.
Alice is the one that wants to live off the grid. This is how her character is presented in the book’s description, like this aspect would be an important element in the book. However, the only manner in which this is explored is by the girls not calling the police when their mother disappears because she wouldn’t like them to go to the authorities…. which is nonsensical to me. The book could have developed in the exact same manner even if the police would have been involved – and we know this because we know authorities of some sort were involved in the older mysterious disappearances mentioned in the book. So the entire living off the grid element is superfluous.
We are told that Ruthie has claustrophobia… several times throughout the book. However, at some point in the novel when she has to crawl through some narrow tunnels she doesn’t have a panic attack, she just breathes and manages to keep everything under control fairly easily for a very claustrophobic person. And in this tunnel crawling episode we have 2 other examples of not so great writing. One is the failure to convey the fear and terror a truly claustrophobic person would feel in these conditions. The other is when we have a scene with someone tied up in a chair with their back at us and Ruthie is afraid of what she might see there. And the author is telling the readers what they should be afraid of, through Ruthie’s perspective “Her mind filled with images from horrible zombie movies”. Really now! That’s what the reader is supposed to be spooked by? Cut this part, let everyone imagine their own personal nightmares sitting in that chair. And another example is where a certain character comes up and says frightened that “something” is coming. We are immediately repeated that “something” three more times, just in case the reader has missed the point that “something” is coming instead of “someone”. This act of spoon-feeding the reader with fear is annoying and has the exact opposite effect.
Fawn is the other character with a strange element to her (alongside Auntie). She has a doll, Mimi, whom she talks to and who talks back to her. This is a disturbing and nice detail to put in the book. She also likes to play hide and seek, and she manages to find all these weird ways to hide throughout the house and not get caught, which plays well with one of the few scary scenes in the in book, involving a closet.
Candace is a character that introduces a new subplot which makes the book a bit more interesting and ties some elements together. Her being a bit not right in the mind could have been spared in my opinion, it doesn’t really bring much to the table.
Katharine…. I don’t understand why her character and her entire subplot even exist in this book. I would rather have had the presence of the doll Mimi explored into something more complex and tied more to the main events than to have anything related to Katharine included in the book.
How’s the plot?
The main idea is not bad, but it’s not exactly well executed. There are some actions that don’t have a lot of sense and are done just to make the plot going or are just pointless. For example, Katharine wants at some point to get into a house and she’s using the “I have problems with my car and no cellphone” excuse. For this, she’s leaving her cellphone in the car to make it more believable and she’s even congratulating herself for this bright idea of hers. She left it in the car not because she was clever, (what exactly were the people from the house going to do: search her to convince themselves she doesn’t have a cellphone?) but because this prevents from calling for help in an easy manner so there you go, Katharine is more involved in the plot. This is just pointless.
I do like what happens with Sara and Martin. The ending to their story is again, one of the few creepy aspects of the book and it’s revealed to the reader in a great way. Although at some point, we are just being repeated the same events from two different characters – which would have been fine if they actually had a different perspective on the events, but they just tell the same things. There’s also a detail in the end that makes things more interesting.
The use of the journal is an aspect I liked, although at times the journal seems to include not only the character’s thoughts, but the author’s also, explaining obvious things once again to the readers. It also has some overstated things which don’t make sense like “It is forbidden and, indeed, impossible” If it’s impossible, then why is it forbidden? If you want to forbid something to make things more scary, then don’t also say that it can’t be done.
Regarding the ending, I did like part of it, especially the different approach the book is taking with these sleepers. However, since there is a mystic element of rising the dead again that needs to be perpetuated beyond the confines of these events, the way in which this is done is by having characters take nonsensical actions, instead of finding a more natural way to keep things going, which makes the ending forced and the lingering feeling of fear artificial.
I would not recommend this book. It’s ok for a commute if you have some hours to kill and you want a light read without paying too much attention to details and focus just on the main plot. However, a far better alternative to this book is Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” and that I indeed recommend for a scarier read.