« Strasbourg lay all around me, familiar streets with cobbles, old buildings constructed in a mixture of styles, most of them incredibly preserved considering the many conflicts that had befallen the city over the years. My eyes, yet to be slashed in dismay, stared out of the window at the small groups of wandering tourists, who were thankfully blind to the Erl-King. »
It is a strange coincidence that the day after I would miss my flight back home from Strasbourg, I would stumble upon a novel about a woman who decides to miss her own flight back home from that very same city. And yet, this is exactly what happened with Adam Scovell’s “How Pale the Winter Has Made Us.” I guess it’s true what they say, life does imitate art. Immediately intrigued, I started reading it and I was in for a treat.
The novel starts off the day the narrator, an academic called Isabelle, is informed by her “harridan mother” of her father’s suicide in Crystal Palace, London. Instead of flying back home to be with her remaining family and face the responsibilities that await her, Isabelle decides to prolong her winter stay in Strasbourg by living alone in her partner’s flat who recently left for an extended trip to South America. Haunted by the folkloric Erl-King and filled with grief, Isabelle becomes increasingly obsessed with Strasbourg’s history. And so begins a narrative of Isabelle’s intensive research of the famous inhabitants of Strasbourg, including Gutenberg, Goethe and Jean Hans Arp, that is intertwined with her own intrusive thoughts and need for escapism.
Set in winter, Scovell perfectly captures the eeriness of Strasbourg. The use of gothic imagery such as Goethe’s Erlkönig, the intense emotions Isabelle is going through, and the rich prose offer an immersive reading experience. Though I enjoyed the gothic elements of the story, what made this book especially compelling was the use of Naturalism.
Throughout the book, Isabelle mentions reading “La Terre” by Emile Zola, the French forefather of the Naturalist novel. It comes then as no surprise that topography plays an important role in this novel. Although we know very little about Isabelle (the reader learns next to nothing of her backstory and physical appearance), her observations of Strasbourg are in minute detail. Strasbourg is a central figure in this story and like in a Zola novel, Isabelle mentions every road, every quartier, every nook and cranny she crosses in search of stories. As someone who lives in Strasbourg I felt especially linked to this book because as I was reading, I was rediscovering the city’s charm while seeing Isabelle fall in love with it (albeit in a more eccentric fashion).
« Luckily, Strasbourg was like a patchwork quilt, constantly revealing new designs, aspects, fabrics, colours, textures and ideas at every turn, and so I only needed a brief drift through its centre before someone would soon appear, brooding with great desperation to tell their story. »
While the narrative is in first person, the tone can get quite detached and it works nicely when it comes to the factual parts of the novel. This detachment, paired with the dual format of the story in which we jump in and out of long passages reciting the history of Strasbourg and of its famous inhabitants, accentuates the disconnect and grief that Isabelle is experiencing while her voice stayed distinctive.
In many senses, “How Pale the Winter Made Us” reminded me of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Otessa Moshfegh. Isabelle and Moshfegh’s unnamed protagonist have a lot in common: they both mourn the suicide of a parent, they grieve in unorthodox ways and by doing so, they attempt to erase their identities. Whilst the female protagonist of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” avoids her trauma by seeking refuge in a self-induced hibernation aided by narcotics, Isabelle opts for a self-imposed exile in Strasbourg where she is constantly wandering around the city’s streets in search of stories and their connection.
Also, both authors use namelessness as a method to indicate the disconnect their main characters feel with their surroundings. While we never got to learn the name of Moshfegh’s protagonist, we know the names of those in her life. On the contrary, while the name of Isabelle is not hidden away from the reader, we never learn the names of those that are supposedly close to her. Instead, they are demoted to their connection to Isabelle or to how Isabelle perceives them. Her partner is constantly referred to as such (although at a given point, we do learn a first initial), her mother is described as “harridan” and her father is a failed artist. Instead, the people that render Strasbourg’s history more accessible to Isabelle, are given a name although their presence in her life is brief.
The strange circumstances that made me come across this novel surely made me appreciate it a whole lot more, but this book stands out in its own right. It’s a novel about grief and self-exile which brings naturalism and gothic elements into contemporary fiction through a fresh pair of eyes.