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on November 3, 2001
In the middle of World War II, 22-year old Katherine Lind, a refugee from Europe is frozen in time and tragedy. Her past is gone -- family, friends, college life -- and she is living moment by moment, in a humiliating temporary library job, among the unfriendly aliens, somewhere in England.
Six years before it was summer, and the world was at peace. On a lark, she's decided to take up her British pen pal's invitation to a three week stay in the Oxfordshire countryside. Robin Fennel puzzles and fasicinates her. The middle part of the book takes us back six years, to that idyllic time. Katherine and Robin's relationship does not fit into any standard romantic paradigm. It is all too subtle for that, and I'd love to see this exquisitely written novel turned into one of those wonderfully atmospheric films the British excell at.
Once again, it is good to read a World War II story, free of latter day cliches, and the teary-eyed romanticism typical of its own period. This book is rather more rewarding than Larkin's first effort, Jill, in that the lead character -- he does a wonderful job with a woman, by the way -- is more complex, mature and knowing than the hapless John Kemp of Jill.
There is also a hint towards a happy ending, though the ultimate outcome would depend on both characters surviving the war. A beautiful book and a pleasure.
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on September 22, 2011
This is one of the most exquisitely perfect novels I have ever read. I said so to a friend, a woman, who'd read the infamous Andrew Motion biography of Philip Larkin, and she said: "It must be gruesome on the subject of women." Well, it's told from the point of view of a woman and it's heartbreakingly real, brave, and nuanced. I believed every moment. Its structure is so perfectly rendered, its mood both dark and yet shimmering with light. It's also one of the few books I've read set in England during the war that's willing to depict a sense of desperation and fatalism. So many books set in England during the war were written many years later, with the inevitable airbrushed nostalgia. Not this one. It's a glimpse of a suspended moment in time, the likes of which most of us are lucky to never have experienced. This is one of the best 10 novels I have ever read.
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on April 8, 2012
The writing in this book is so good that it kept me up way past my bedtime, despite that I twice put the book down firmly, determined to leave some for tomorrow. The story line itself is remarkably gripping; it's mostly in a woman's head, what she's thinking and what she's doing about what she's thinking. But of course, it's here presented by a male author, so its authenticity is suspect. In any case, the story line is only a scaffold on which to drape the imagery in the sentences. The imagery is throw-away, scattered everywhere about in the sentences. Some of it is door-opening. Just open the book to any page and start reading.

I don't know why Larkin didn't continue with novels, but it does seem to me that A Girl in Winter fails at establishing a background ambiance. The title contains the word 'winter,' and the story is set on a cold winter day in WWII black-out England. Some paragraphs convey details of the cold and the dark, but somehow I didn't come away remembering any feeling of cold or dark. The book doesn't "place" you, in the way that Conrad can put you in a storm at sea, or isolated in an upriver Indonesian clearing. It may be because Larkin breaks the winter day into two parts that bookend a long flashback to a summer holiday. But I suspect that it's caused by the metaphorical imagery in the book: it is so pervasive, and so vivid, that even the cold and the dark are taken to be properties of the soul, or of life itself. Larkin uses language in realms far from where it was invented. After he transported me to a view of those realms, I was very reluctant to return.
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on February 28, 2015
I fear this novel is often mistaken – when it is taken at all – as an evocation of a time and place (England, ca. 1940), or as a canvas on which Larkin was developing the poetic voice that would subsequently make his name. As such, readers may find more or less to like in A Girl in Winter, but will miss its profundity. In fact, what Larkin does with this book is to communicate a very particular, perturbing idea of what it is to be a person, particularly a person of “sensibility” (p. 164). Lest this trigger a not unreasonable aversion to “psychological,” or “philosophical” novels, however, let it be said that Larkin knows how to “show, don’t tell,” creating a book that is, in some sense, “so fine no idea could violate it.” To read it is not to receive a set of propositions, or even to follow a series of events, but to behold experience in a particular way.

Most of that experience is interior to Katherine Lind, the “girl” of the title. On paper, the plot is so slender as to be almost irrelevant. A foreign refugee in England in the early years of World War II, Katherine works in a branch library in a provincial town. Several years before, she spent three summer weeks in England with the family of a school pen pal. Now, she may renew contact with them. That’s it. Although this seems to trouble some readers – no less a litterateur than Joyce Carol Oates finds the novel “curiously without action” – it strikes me as a good deal more realistic than event-laden novels in which momentous things happen; for how often do truly momentous things happen to any of us?

Indeed, what the novel shows is how much of the meaning of events emanates from ourselves, and how much disappointment may follow from a failure to find a corresponding meaning reflected back to us. Katherine attends intensely to her experiences, and yet finds that these fail to sustain her with purpose. In a minor key, for instance, the novel shows Katherine enraged and fascinated by Mr. Anstey, the petty bureaucrat who manages the library, while the other staff simply take him in stride, like “the weather” (p. 24). Of course, to treat another person like the weather is not to treat them like a person at all; Katherine, whatever her feelings towards him, tries to comprehend Anstey in the round, as the entire affair of Anstey, Ms. Parbury, and the lost handbag shows.

More portentously, Katherine’s pre-war summer visit to Robin Fennel, her English pen pal, shows her turning over their interactions, attempting to discern some feeling or motivation hidden within him, only to discover finally that there is no “there” there (pp. 142, 146-47). But the contingent, almost whimsical quality of this encounter – happening for no very great reason, it leads in itself to nothing consequential – really serves to show us Katherine’s present, fragile condition, in which the summer visit and her acquaintance with the Fennels take on an outsized importance (pp. 216-17; 232). The effect is subtle, yet deeper than the recitation of any number of details about her home country, her family, or her flight to England could achieve.

Perhaps for this reason, I find Katherine a profoundly sympathetic character. Joyce Carol Oates, again, finds her “shadowy and vaporous,” not really a character at all (in part, bizarrely, because we are not apprised of her sexual history, which says more about Oates than about this book). In fact, Katherine is an intensely sensitive and in many ways outward-looking person, alert to the characteristics of those around her, from Ms. Green her lowly co-worker (p. 34), to Ms. Parbury the chance acquaintance (pp. 192-93), or to Robin and Jane Fennel (e.g., p. 142).

That sensibility also comprehends the distance between herself and others – positioned like “fellow-traveller[s] in a railway carriage” (p. 237) – and regrets it. Katherine looks for meaning in these connections; the more ordinary view may be expressed by Robin Fennel when in the course of seducing her he rejoins that “I don’t see that anything means very much. I spend all my time doing things that don’t matter two-pence. So do you” (p. 242). Most of us skate over the surface of things – mundane errands, employers’ harangues, seductions, all of it like so much “weather” in which we move – and to pause and look too deeply is perhaps to ask for such disappointment at Katherine receives. The book ends, finally, in sleep, a kind of peace and yet also a kind of surrender to an austere existence for a soul such as Katherine’s. The truth of this vision may be disputable, but I don’t think that its beauty is.
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on March 17, 2015
Jill's wonderful as well. Hard to explain why this novel's so affecting, so enchanting. Nothing happens, the diction's not exactly poetic (hell, Larkin's poetry it could be said isn't even really poetic), the narrative moves along like a punt on the Cam. But it somehow makes you feel as though you can't put it down; it's very pleasantly literary (that's not a dig), and it's just moving and beautiful in ways you just can't explain. have I been able to explain anything here? no, i have not. hahaha. A Girl in Winter is simply marvelous, and restrained, and mannered, and inexplicably (as i have shewn here! haha) GOOD. get it.
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