The Winter Place by Alexander Yates (YA)

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Reviewed by Annabel

Tess’s mother died giving birth to her brother Axel. They live with their father in a cabin at the edge of a town in the middle of New York State. As this novel begins, the annual Renaissance faire has begun and their father will take part in the joust once again with Axel as his squire, although Axel is more concerned with Tess’s date.

“This one’s a bigger jerk than usual,” Axel said. It would have been a brave and rather foolish thing to say, had it been in English.
“Hell is that?” the boy said, his hand still on Axel’s shoulder. “Elvish?”
“Suomea,” Axel answered. It was Finnish, for Finnish. Only Tess understood what he’d said, on account of she spoke it too.
“Snow-ma?” The boy glanced back at Tess, a hint of irritated confusion behind his pasted-on grin. “I forget; they were on our side? Or did they fight for the Klingons?”

This is when we find out that their mother was Finnish; their father had continued their Finnish lessons long after she died – their secret language.

That evening two things happen to change their lives forever. The first is the appearance of a huge brown bear in their garden. Axel faces the bear, but it isn’t interested in him, just pushes past and looks through the window at Tess then lollops off past their neighbour’s house. A strange man who says he’s the keeper looking for the bear passes through too. Later two policemen arrive – Tess and Axel assume they’ve come about the bear, but it’s worse than that. They father has been killed in a freak car accident.

Tess and Axel assume they’ll go to live with their Grandpa Paul, but Paul, who is alcoholic and lives in a trailer, isn’t capable of taking them in. Soon, their other grandmother arrives – from Finland. Tess and Axel have never knowingly met her and the idea of going to live with Jaana and Otso in Helsinki is hellish – but they have to go. They don’t let on to their new grandparents that they can speak Finnish  for some time, though.

Once in Helsinki, it’s clear that the Kivi’s flat isn’t big enough for them, so Janna and Otso plan to take Tess and Axel to their summer place, to finish shutting it up for the coming winter. Buying supplies in the market, Axel sees the Keeper and chases after him. The stranger tells him that they must go to the summer place in Talvijärvi – their parents need their help.

Although we’ve had hints of it earlier in the novel, this is where the myths and legends of the far North really begin to weave their way into the narrative.  Axel is the channel for some strange visions – the Keeper tells him that he is being followed by a hiisi – a malevolent troll or demon. Axel being a sickly child sees his hiisi as a wheelchair – the thing he fears.

However, desperate to find the mother he’s never known and be reunited with his father, even if they are spirits, Axel returns to the forest to confront the hiisi and find his parents with the strange Keeper at his side.

“If you want the Hiisi to stop, your choices are simple. You can leave the pat and go back to, you know, whatever it was you were planning to do with the rest of your life. Of you can just start belonging.” […]

“But if you can get both feet on the path, if you really commit to staying here with your mother and father, then the Hiisi will have no choice but to heave you alone.”

Once Tess finds out that Axel has gone, she realises that he may not return alive to this world – they must find him, save him, bring him back…

I enjoy contemporary novels that keep myths and legends alive and allow the real and spirit worlds to collide. However, they can only collide in extraordinary circumstances – in this case the grief caused by the death of Tess and Axel’s father and the subsequent events. Tess is more able to channel her grief through anger, whereas Axel is rather lost in it and he’s the conduit between the two worlds.

I must admit that I know little of the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, but upon reading a little about it, I was surprised that this folklore epic was only written down in the 19th century, although the tales within are more ancient. Brought up to date, where a hiisi can appear as a terrifying wheelchair, the central stories and characters are timeless.

The emotional turmoil of losing both parents, then having to forge a relationship, in a new country, with relatives you never knew existed, would have made a good novel on its own. Bringing the supernatural and mythical world into this story made it far more interesting and enjoyable.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Alexander has written a guest post for us  here about the influences of indie theatre on his writing.

Alexander Yates, The Winter Place (Simon & Schuster, 2015) 978-1471123832, 448 p.p., paperback original.

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