[15 July 2014]
Something had followed them home from Russia. This is what Holly, the protagonist of Laura Kasischke’s latest novel, Mind of Winter, thinks to herself on Christmas morning as the novel opens. Holly is hung-over, having had too much eggnog the night before. As she tosses in bed, she believes the sentence running through her mind is so important that she needs to write it down.
However, she can’t seem to get around to it. There are too many things that need to get done. While her husband, Eric, springs out of bed to pick up his parents at the airport, Holly remembers she has to cook dinner for several guests who will be coming in a few hours. Still, as she goes about her business, the words Something had followed them home from Russia ring through her head.
What, exactly, followed them home from Russia? This becomes the question the reader is left to ponder as the novel continues. Certainly their daughter, Tatiana, followed them home when Holly and Eric adopted her from Pakrova Orphanage #2 in Siberia 13 years prior on Christmas day. Tatiana, or “Tatty“ as Holly calls her, is their dream child and even though she is now a moody 15-year-old, she is not a “thing“ that followed them home from Russia. As the narrator clarifies: “She was no follower, no revenant, no curse from another country.” No, a thing had followed them home and all “it had in common with their daughter was that it came back with them from Russia.”
In fact, her mother adores Tatiana so much her affection is tangible. This love is something that Kasischke, a mother herself, is able to nail on the page with passages like: “Tatty the Beauty. Gorgeous Russian dancer, howler monkey, sweetheart, wanderer. love of their lives…”
As the story continues, flip flopping between the present and past, we learn that Holly was once a poet. Kasischke who is an award-winning poet herself, makes references to several poets Holly is fond of, including Louise Glück, Marie Howe, Tony Hoagland, and Carolyne Forché. Now, between her daughter, husband, and corporate job, Holly can never find a minute to write. She admits she has a bad case of writer’s block, and then eventually says she is “no poet”.
In essence, Holly’s poetry brings her back to her illness: a gene mutation, which took the lives of her mother and two of her sisters. In order to survive into adulthood without developing cancer, Holly had to have her ovaries and breasts removed. So “to sit down and write was torture“ for her. It starts to become clear why she just can’t seem to get the words Something had followed them home to Russia onto the page. Like poetry, the sentence leads to something too painful for Holly to face.
As Holly tries to resolve the puzzling sentence, she thinks back to how the nurses at Pokrovka Orphanage #2 amused her and Eric with their superstitions, and insistence on giving Tatiana an American sounding name like “Sally“ because, as they cautioned, “Name her American. Or she’ll be back.” However, Holly and Eric wanted their new daughter to be proud of her Russian heritage and ignore the warnings as well as the secretive nature of the bleak orphanage with its clandestine room that Holly would later regret going into. As the narrator affirms: “It was all a secret. The entire country was a secret, and Siberia was the vast white secret at the center of it.”
The story could be seen as a glance behind the curtain of Russia’s dubious adoption system, however it goes much deeper than that. It delves into a mother’s psychological conundrum. Holly is aware on a subconscious level that some imperative truth is lurking inside her and has been for years, yet she has suppressed it.
In fact, she is in denial about many things. As her friends call to cancel their dinner plans, she’s surprised to hear they won’t be able to make it, yet she should know with one look out the window that driving anywhere is impossible. Similarly, Holly doesn’t even question Tatiana’s absence when she emerges from her bedroom after locking herself in for a long time, ignoring Holly’s pleas to open the door.
To steer things into an even darker place, Kasischke gives the story fairytale attributes, describing Tatiana as and “ancient beauty“ and “Jet-Black Repunzel“ with her long black hair, black “polished stone” eyes, and “ruby blue lips“. Such descriptions are apt as the novel resonates the nightmarish quality of a Grimms Brothers’ fairytale. The prose is spine-chilling and pushes the book close to horror, but never tips it all the way into that genre.
Instead, the horror is psychological and reflected in the domestic details of Holly’s life. The snow outside piles up “like a staticky wall“ as Holly watches it ambivalently through her front windows. Eric calls to tell her he is in the hospital with his parents because his mother isn’t well. Meanwhile, Tatiana acts strangely, changing into bizarre outfits and locking herself in her room, then appearing in parts of the house when Holly least expects it.
In one of the most memorable and creepy scenes, Holly tries desperately to scrub her own shadow off the kitchen floor. One can’t help thinking of Lady Macbeth crying, “Out, damned spot!”
Why is she trying to scrub her shadow off the floor? Will Eric and his parents ever get home? Will the snow ever stop? Will Tatiana do something erratic, something dangerous? The tension mounts until Holly’s disturbing and utterly shocking secret is finally revealed on the very last page.
Just before that happens, Holly stares out at the bright snow, thinking that in order to face such a painful truth as the one she has been running from “one must have a mind of winter“. This phrase is a line from a Wallace Stevens poem and a clever choice for the book’s title. Mind of Winter is a crafty, thrilling page-turner with shimmering prose and a heart-wrenching ending.