The Very Dead of Winter by Mary Hocking

Like many other bloggers and readers, I first discovered Mary Hocking through Ali’s sterling efforts in championing her work over the past couple of years. While she seems very much her own writer, Hocking shares something in common with some of her forerunners and contemporaries – fellow British authors such as Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor (possibly Beryl Bainbridge too, although I’m still relatively new to her work). In The Very Dead of Winter, she demonstrates a keen eye for social situations, especially those which highlight the tensions and mismatches that often emerge in family life. There is so much black humour in this novel too, but I’ll come back to that point a little later in my review.

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As the novel opens, Florence and her grown-up daughter, Anita, are driving to a fairly isolated country cottage where they will be joining the rest of their family to spend Christmas in the snow. The cottage has been in the family for several years and is now owned by Sophia, Florence’s sister – the two sisters have rarely spoken to one another in the last thirty years, a point that becomes quite significant as their story unfolds. Also present at the cottage are Florence’s husband, Konrad, and the couple’s son, Nicholas. Konrad has been ill for some time, and it is clear from the start of the novel that he has only a few days left to live.

Florence and Anita are both rather self-centred; they attack one another at every opportunity and give very little thought to Konrad as he lies in bed upstairs. Florence, a domineering and manipulative woman at the best of times, seems unable to face up to the fact that her husband is dying. All her life she has occupied a central position in the family – first as a daughter and then as a wife and mother. Now she is fearful of a future on the margins, the lonely existence of a widow cut adrift from the activity of life. Sophia, on the other hand, is very different to Florence; a more insightful and sensitive woman than her sister, Sophia is much more attuned to Konrad’s needs, tending to him as passes through the final phase of his life. As the story moves forward, old grudges, resentments and family secrets come tumbling out of the closet, all of which add to the tension within the cottage.

As she looked at her sister, Florence was aware of anger always simmering inside her, an anger which sometimes boiled up unaccountably. Ever since she could remember, Sophia had looked as if she had started late for an appointment the purpose of which she had already forgotten. It astonished Florence that despite this she had never actually come to grief. […]

And yet, they were not unalike. There were times, brief flashes rather than occasions, when Florence was aware that at some level they understood each other perfectly. This was not a comforting insight. (pg. 102)

In truth, Florence has shown very little interest in her husband’s life over the past thirty years. As a young boy, Konrad had arrived in England as a refugee from Germany, an experience that left him somewhat scarred for life. As an adult with a talent for languages, Konrad had joined the BBC World Service, but in spite of this achievement, he remained something of a disappointment to his wife. With an eye on the glamour of placements in exotic locations, Florence had hoped that her husband would join the Diplomatic Service, but alas this was not to be – as far as Florence was concerned, he had simply let the opportunity slip through his fingers. Moreover, Florence has paid very little attention to Konrad’s interest in painting over the course of their marriage, an activity he enjoyed during weekends away from the family and all the accompanying tensions at home.

The characters and set-up in The Very Dead of Winter provide Hocking with a plenty of opportunities for a macabre style of comedy. There are several acerbic exchanges between Florence and her daughter, Anita, a Child Psychologist who shows very little in the way of empathy or sympathy for other people, especially children. Anita also comes to the fore when her brother shows an interest in Frances, a young neighbour of Sophia’s whom the two siblings visit during their stay. Nicholas is a geologist, forever thinking of his next expedition to a faraway land. By nature he is something of a loner, wary of getting entangled with other people, both their lives in general and their emotions.

‘Cocoa will do nicely,’ Nicholas said.

Anita looked at him pityingly. What did he think he was going to get out of this – the thrill of entering a forbidden temple? As Frances heated  milk on the stove, Anita studied her, making mental jottings – unusually composed for her age: although she is nervous she doesn’t allow herself to be hustled; emotionally reserved, but she can still look at Nicholas as if she is making a votive offering of this bloody cocoa; sexually unfulfilled, neither child nor woman. I wouldn’t want to deal with her and Nicholas certainly shouldn’t be allowed to. (pg. 27)

The novel comes complete will a raft of darkly comic scenes in which members of this dysfunctional family rub up against one another in this time of heightened emotions.

Alongside the humour, there are quieter moments too, insightful reflections on the nature of life and the challenges of adapting to change and loss especially as one grows older. In the passage below, Sophia’s neighbour, Thomas, contemplates his own situation. Florence has taken rather a shine to this gentle widower, viewing him as a potential partner once Konrad has passed away. For his part, Thomas is still mourning the loss of his own wife and son, the latter from a tragic act that has left a deep mark. The aforementioned Frances lives with Thomas – a relative by marriage, she takes care of Thomas and his young grandson, Andrew. Both Frances and Thomas are rather vulnerable in their individual ways. Nevertheless, Thomas knows the time will come when Frances must be encouraged to leave the nest, however painful that experience might turn out to be.

Thomas, washing up the coffee cups, reflected that not the least of the things she [Frances] had done for him was to save him from such as Florence. He was a proud man whose independence was important to him. The possibility that Frances might go – indeed should be encouraged to go whenever the time was right for her – leaving him to become the object of pity and calculation was more than distasteful, it was frightening. There was Andrew to consider. He had known several men who had made disastrous second marriages for the sake of their children. For a moment, as he dried the cups and trod in Jasper’s lunch bowl, he felt threatened as never before. (pgs. 107-108)

While I didn’t love this novel quite as much as the Taylors and Pyms I’ve read to date, I did enjoy it a great deal. There is plenty of wicked fun to be had in the company of these rather fractured characters, all of whom are painted with sufficient depth and insight to make them feel lifelike (even if some of them are a little grotesque). The novel has a dark quality, almost like a macabre fairy tale, and there are several references to this genre throughout the story. Hocking’s charming descriptions of the snowy landscapes add to the novel’s atmosphere. I couldn’t help but wonder if the images of gnarled and twisted tree trunks devastated by the hurricane of 1987 were a kind of metaphor for these rather damaged individuals and their broken lives.

My thanks to Ali for the copy of this novel which I won in a giveaway – you can read her review here. Caroline has also reviewed it here. This copy was issued by Virago, but Bello will be publishing a lovely new edition on 14th July (one of another 12 novels by Hocking). The new covers are rather beautiful.

46 thoughts on “The Very Dead of Winter by Mary Hocking

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Both Ali and Caroline have drawn that comparison, and there’s definitely something in it. She’s not quite the same as either Taylor or Pym, but there are some similarities. Judging by this novel, I’d say she’s darker than Pym; Hocking’s brand of humour is rather wicked…

      Reply
  1. Poppy Peacock

    I’m always intrigued by family relations during ‘forced’ situations with heightened tensions… all the more when there is a promise of black humour! Havent read any Hocking & will look out for the new editions.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The set-up’s great, and Hocking handles it really well. I liked the touch of poignancy alongside the dark humour as it shows that Hocking was more than just a ‘one-note’ writer. It’s great to see her books back in print with Bello, such pretty editions too.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. There’s every chance you’ll enjoy Hocking, especially given her style and subject matter. Summer would be a good time to give her a go. Would love to hear what you think.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    I find that dark humor can be very entertaining, The plot and the characters also sound good.

    Though I have not read them, based on what I have read on your blog and elsewhere, I think that I would like Hocking, Pym and Taylor.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you would enjoy them too. One thing that unites these writers is the fact that their novels have a lot to say about the vagaries of human nature. The situations they create seem perfect for this.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I liked the way she used the imagery in the setting and surrounding countryside to create that particular mood. Thank you for the introduction to Mary Hocking and for the book which I enjoyed a great deal. Very tempted to try something else by this author in the future, possibly Visitors to the Crescent.

      Reply
  3. Caroline

    Macabre fairy tale. Not a bad way of putting it. I really loved it. I find her great in a flawed way. Taylor and Pym are more rounded but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of Mary Hocking and I find she’s great at creating atmosphere and has a strong sense of place too. I’m sure you’ll find her humor closer to Bainbridge, maybe even some Muriel Spark. I’m so glad I still have some of her books on my TBR pile.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks. I liked it a lot, especially the characterisation and wicked humour. (I can see why you thought of Muriel Spark too.) Her prose might not be as polished as Taylor’s or Pym’s, but her sense of characterisation is very strong. Florence and Anita are priceless – I am struggling to imagine anyone less suited to the role of a Child Psychologist…

      I’ll be interested to see how you find some of her others. I’d be up for trying one or two of the new editions, it’s just a question of which to try next.

      Reply
  4. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I’ll be looking for one of the new editions, since I feel like I need to reward the publisher for reissuing the books. All the reviews I’ve read have really made me curious, and you’ve only added to that with your mention of the dark humor.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’d like to support Bello by purchasing one or two of the new editions as it’s great to see so many of them back in print. The reviews have been quite encouraging, haven’t they? All credit to Ali for sparking an interest in Hocking’s work!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’ve very welcome, John. I’d never heard of Mary Hocking until Ali started to write about her work. Makes me wonder just how many other British writers have simply dropped off the radar in the last fifty years or so. Quite a few I suspect…

      Reply
      1. realthog

        Oh, yes. I was talking yesterday elsewhere about J.B. Priestley, who in my yoof was still a fairly big name but who now seems to have more or less vanished from the pub;lic consciousness.

        Reply
  5. gertloveday

    I am amazed I’ve never heard of Mary Hocking especially as Virago picked quite a few books. I thought I’d read their entire list, but Wikipedia tells me she was published between 1961 and 1996 and she has escaped my notice altogether. Will have to remedy this.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d never heard of her either until Ali started to write about her work. There are quite a few Mary Hocking posts and reviews on her blog if you need any more info or recommendations on where to start. For what it’s worth, I think you’d enjoy the characters in this one (especially the women).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She’s definitely worth a look. There’s a good chance you would enjoy her, especially given your fondness for Elizabeth Taylor and other women writers of her ilk.

      Reply
  6. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    Thanks for the review. I have to add Hocking to my list of authors to read. I don’t think I would start with this book. Maybe I will check Ali’s blog for a few recommendations. Great review though.

    The new covers are truly beautiful!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Aren’t they just? Bello have done a super job with these books. Yes, do take a look at Ali’s blog for a few recommendations – she’s the expert when it comes to Ms Hocking.

      Reply
  7. Alice

    Well this sounds very emotionally fitful! I really enjoy a story where there is no clear villain and hero and instead you’re picking apart the intricacies of people.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too. Even though these characters have their own individual flaws and shortcomings, I couldn’t help but feel a degree of sympathy for them. It’s a great set-up for a story.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d enjoy this too! The characters are great, especially Florence and Anita. Looking forward to hear more about Family Circle. I’ll be on the lookout for more Mary Hocking recommendations in the future.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, very tempting. I’m quite keen to try something by Richmal Crompton as well, another neglected writer whose books are very keenly priced on kindle.

          Reply
  8. cleopatralovesbooks

    It does sound like Mary Hocking is an author I do need to discover – I’m very much taken by writing that features this kind of dysfunctional family and especially so when there is a vein of dark humour.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She handles the balance very well, I think. In the hands of another writer, this could have tipped into melodrama, but the touches of poignancy act as a counterweight to the black humour. I’m glad to have discovered her.

      Reply
  9. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I love those novels and movies that take place over a festive gathering when all the family return and all the old tensions and grudges and need for love and understanding return. They usually have all the elements, the highs, lows and everything in between. Characters think they have moved on and changed and the return to family reminds them that a part of them they’d thought left behind has merely been waiting in the shadows awaiting this moment to reappear.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too. It’s sort what attracted me to this novel in the first place. Your comment has made me wonder whether there might be some parallels with Anne Enright’s The Green Road. I haven’t read it (yet), but I think I’m right in saying that it features a reunion, a family coming together over Christmas for the first time in years.

      Reply
  10. Megan

    This is my first time hearing of Mary Hocking, and I think I’ll have to seek out a copy of this book. A tale of family dysfunction *and* with black humour? Sounds like just the thing I would like!

    Reply
  11. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  12. Scott W

    A mid-century British woman writer of whom I’ve never heard even the name! As you know, I think these mid-century British women make for an extraordinary cohort of talent, so I’ll have to try Hocking at some point. Of course, I still have stacks of Taylor and Pym and Weldon and Comyns and Bainbridge and and and… so who knows when?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! That’s the problem I too am facing since discovering all these wonderful women writers at a fairly later stage in my reading life. If only I’d tried Elizabeth Taylor when I was much younger….but then again, I might not have appreciated her subtleties back then when I was young and immature. Hocking’s not quite in the same league as Taylor or Pym, but then again, they’re two of the very best. Nevertheless, she is most definitely worth a look. I’m quite tempted to try her Good Daughters trilogy, which seems to have attracted some excellent reviews.

      Reply

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