Half the World in Winter by Maggie Joel

In brief: A story about grief and the things it makes us do set in London, 1880. Two families, haunted by the horrific deaths of their daughters, react in different ways. Will they fall apart or carry on?

The good: I’ve waited so long for a new Maggie Joel book! I love the intricate details of life in Victorian London.

The not-so-good: A little slow to start.

Why I chose it: Thank you to Allen & Unwin and The Reading Room for the ARC – I love Maggie Joel’s writing so this was lovely to receive in the mail.

Year: 2014

Pages: 426 (ARC)

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Setting: England

My rating: 8 out of 10

I always look forward to novels written by Maggie Joel. She combines elegant prose with an element of history I know little about to create a story that is fascinating with a touch of Gothic qualities. For Half the World in Winter (don’t worry, you’ll discover the meaning of the title by the middle of the book), she goes back in history further than before to London, 1880. The setting is still London and the topic is grief. This is an era before antibiotics, skin grafts and trauma medicine became routine and the untimely deaths of two young girls haunt two families, leading them to breaking point.

The main family we follow is the Jarmyns. Sofia died a prolonged, agonising death after her clothes caught on fire. Since then, her father has banned fires in the house (not a comfortable thing in the cold of December when electricity was in its infancy). Lucas is also increasingly concerned about the role his wife Aurora played in the accident but he can’t bring himself to ask her. Aurora is still grieving but her husband is unreachable. In the midst of this, their daughter Dinah has a secret of her own, one that will become more painful to carry as the Boer War begins. Then there’s the housekeeper, Mrs Logan, who appeared in shady circumstances (or so Aurora believes) and the maids who have quit after seeing a ghost in the drawing room.

Running parallel is the grief of Thomas Brinklow, who lost his daughter Alice in a train crash. The connection? Mr Jarmyn owns the railway they were travelling on, which is no stranger to accidents. Was the company negligent or was it driver error? As Thomas’s wife deserts him, he travels to London, destitute and mad with grief to seek an audience with Mr Jarmyn.

Once again, the history in this novel is fascinating. I enjoyed learning more about the Victorian mourning rituals (especially the colours of the dresses and note cards as well as the thickness of the coloured border as a marker of the depth of grief). The trips the Jarmyn women took to Dearly Departed, an emporium for all things grief related was morbidly enthralling. I also liked how trains, a relatively new invention, were treated with suspicion and fear – can you imagine that these days (we don’t even feel that way about the latest mass travel machine, aeroplanes)? The setting is expertly done; I felt the London fog and despair as I heard the streets rattle with carriages and carts. Maggie Joel’s books evoke emotion without fail.

As for plot, I found it initially slow as the characters and their stations were revealed but it grew on me as I continued to read and the characters began to reveal their secrets. It was very cleverly plotted and entwined – I found just as I was wondering what one character’s secret or link to another was, it was described. The revelations at the end of the story tied everything together well, but not as I’d expected (which is a good thing; I like a good twist in my story). While not upbeat, the story shines with authenticity on how people thought, felt and acted during this time period. Light relief was provided by the cook (who will not cook pigeon under any circumstance, indeed the family need to fool her into thinking she’s cooking ‘Prussian fowl’) and Hermione, the new maid who turns out to be a good actress in a crisis.

An enthralling insight into grief and the rituals of the Victorians, Half the World in Winter delivers a sombre yet authentic story. It’s the closest you’ll get to a time machine to access the Victorian period.

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