Book review: In the Midst of Winter

Isabel AllendeIn the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende is the story of three ordinary-looking people, people you would not glance at if you passed by them in the street, and their extra-ordinary lives. Each has faced loss and trauma, each feels isolated, lonely. Laced throughout this deceptive novel are themes of dislocation, grief, human trafficking and the courage to free oneself of these bonds. Set in modern-day Brooklyn and Guatemala, and 1970s Chile and Brazil, it is the story of people relocated thousands of miles away from family to new countries with strange languages and customs where against the odds they must begin a new life.

Richard, Lucia and Evelyn are thrown together in Brooklyn, New York, during a momentous snowstorm. Evelyn, a young illegal immigrant from Guatemala, borrows her employer’s car and in the storm crashes into Richard. Richard is in his sixties, a loner, aesthete and reformed alcoholic, he lives his life according to routine. But when the car crash upsets his rigid ordered life, he is forced to halt his almost OCD existence and do unpredictable, often rash, things. When Evelyn turns up on his doorstep, hours after the crash, he is unable to understand her Spanish and asks Lucia, university colleague and tenant of the basement flat of his freezing cold Brooklyn brownstone, to come upstairs and help him with the hysterical girl.

The reason for Evelyn’s hysteria becomes clear the next morning. What they choose to do next constitutes In the Midst of Winter. It is a road trip with a difference as the trio set off in convoy in two cars, into a snowstorm, with a task to complete. Their choice dominates the book and, though I found it well-meaning, it seemed emotional and impractical. The journey is the technique by which Allende tells their stories; each is an unburdening, a confession of their guilt, shame, offences and regrets. I lost myself in each of these stories and came back to the modern day strand with a clunk, as I remembered the choice these three people made. It feels surrealistic, as if their horrific ‘problem’ [the reason for the road trip] doesn’t exist. The writing is beautiful, particularly the description of snow, though the stories of abuse are harrowing.

Essentially Allende tells two stories – the accident; and the historical stories of Richard, Lucia and Evelyn. They start as strangers and by the end of the trip they have shared more than a car, their experience bonds them together and shows them a life different from their own. The snowstorm has a double effect. It acts as a vacuum in which the outside world has zero presence, in which these three strangers must react to their discovery and decide what action to take. Perhaps this explains their out-of-the-real-world decision. It also focuses a magnifying glass on each individual as they confess their story, sometimes for the first time, offering themselves up to the other two strangers for rejection or redemption. In the first half I got the backstories of Lucia and Evelyn confused, but as the story went on this became clearer.

This is an unusual story exploring how ordinary people are affected by legal and illegal immigration from South America to the United States, of gang violence, trafficking and exploitation, of the American immigration rules, and of the perils of living outside the law. Which is a lot to handle in one novel. But most of all, it is the story of three people and how they struggle to overcome the challenges which life presents to them, finding friendship at the end.

If you like this, try:-
‘Crow Blue’ by Adriana Lisboa
‘Something to Hide’ by Deborah Moggach
‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’ by Herman Kock

‘In the Midst of Winter’ Isabel Allende [UK: Scribner]

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