***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
First the good. I admire what Marcus Sedgwick is attempting with Midwinterblood. I'm glad that he took his time with it, and didn't dash off a "YA look-alike with a familiar hook" (which some paranormal, dystopia, contemporary guy-books, etc. can feel like). The complexity here reminded me a little of Mal Peet's work. I like the world of the island and the mood he evoked. I think his writing and language are generally excellent. I love that this book is different, that it's trying to be art and not a blockbuster. It's cool that it evokes the feeling of both time travel and reincarnation. The structure of going backwards through time is clever and interesting, and a brilliant hook in terms of plotting. Good stuff.
Comparisons. I found myself thinking about Margo Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island when I read this. (Although on the surface, the only similarity in plot is the almost dream-like existence of magic on an island that's secluded and somewhat frozen in time.) On the positive side, like Brides, there's value in any book that bothers me somewhat, causing me to think, which Midwinterblood did. Still, I'm going to have to say Midwinterblood faltered, where Brides was much more sure-handed. Brides caused me to mull for days afterward because the meaning was elusive and sometimes contradictory. But I enjoyed that, because I felt Lanagan was in control the whole time, the master of it. I felt that she knew in her own core what she was saying, and that it was a deliberately complex message--by which I mean "gray" rather than black-and-white. There was also a stronger overall arc to her separate vignettes, making them a real story, perhaps because we always had the character of Misskaela as a thread to represent the eternity of the island's problems, whereas Midwinterblood sometimes feels like a grab-bag of motifs designed to "tell" us there's an eternal cycle, using everything plus the kitchen sink (the number seven, the hare, the apples, the dragons, the sun, the moon, and on and on).
Is there a plot, or just a "consideration" of love and sacrifice? I don't think the book really has a plot, which is perhaps not necessary for art, but it's also not that satisfying to me personally. On the blog tour, Sedgwick talked about the painting that inspired the book:
It took me a few years (!) to work out how I actually wanted the book to work – which is to have seven stories, all linked, which play out the scene of the painting in different times and with different characters. In that way I could better consider the subject of sacrifice in all its forms, as along with the various forms of another great human trait – love, which is the unspoken theme of the painting...
That word consider leaps out at me. The book is not a story so much as a consideration--a meditation--on sacrifice and love, and not a deep enough one in my opinion. What do we get out of it in the end? That love means sacrifice, and that love is eternal? Is it that cliche, or am I missing something? I want a story, and I want the story to make me think about sacrifice and love.
The seven stories don't cohere in a meaningful way. I wonder whether, in exploring multiple forms of love rather than focusing on one, Sedgwick winds up confusing us, distracting us from the point somehow. The love between an old man and a young girl, between twins, a mother and a son, and lovers (whether lesbian or heterosexual) can theoretically all be equally deep I guess, but they are different. Maybe there's a core of sameness to love, I don't know, but everything else you can put into words about each kind of love is more nuanced. There's a self-sacrifice to the love I have for my kids, for example, that's primal. If I had to give my life for any person I cared about other than my children, I might make the same decision but I think it would be more cerebral, less visceral and instinctive. And twins have a connection that involves a comfort most of us can't fathom, because of shared experiences from the cradle on. Also, "true love"--whether romantic or otherwise--was never meaningfully shown by Sedgwick, so I never felt invested in the reincarnated versions of Merle and Eric. The swimming scene, for instance, came after relatively little interaction between the 2073 Eric and Merle. We're supposed to believe that their connection was formed long ago, and buy that they fall right in step with it. Maybe that would be okay if we had seen ANY version of Eric and Merle's lives fleshed out so fully that we ached for their love, but each story was short and superficial enough not to have given us that. One story involves an islander named Eric and...the daughter, Merle, who is still in England, of the WWII airman who crashes on the island? This version of Eric and Merle never even meet.
Motifs and themes. I'm not sure what all the motifs contribute to the story, other than creating atmosphere and demonstrating a continuity over time. I'm not an English major, so the symbolism of, for instance, the hare eludes me. It winds up, in my reading experience, feeling like a sort of spirit animal for the main characters, and a reason (a common thread) to feel the eternal nature of the island. But there were so many of them, it wound up feeling like a hodge podge of "significant items" rather than carrying meaning for the story. Why is the magic flower necessary to this story? Why the slowed aging? In the very end, sort of tacked on, we learn that there's a tradeoff between extending your lifespan and having children--so I think it's meant to fit into the sacrifice-for-others theme (you'd choose a shorter life in order to be able to give life to your children)--but is just listing sacrifices through time interesting? Is listing various love relationships through a story?
Ritual Sacrifice. Can I admit that I don't understand why the Eric and Merle of 2073 were being ritualistically sacrificed rather than just snuffed out mafia style? I presume they were being killed because they're going to escape, and because they can bring the information about the dragon flower to the contemporary world. Are we meant to think that ritual sacrifice is still helping the island all these years later? And given that Merle was planning to save Eric, why didn't she do it before he was strapped to the table with that curved knife held over him by two burly guys? (Other than to create the Hollywood scene, I mean.) Some of the other deaths--for example, Erik saving David Thompson (the airman) by allowing himself to be shot--are not ritualistic sacrifices.
The painting it's all based on. I thought the novel foundered during the "art history" segment where he laboriously describes the painting. This is the part of art-history texts that I always want to skip, too. It wasn't beautifully done, either, in terms of language. It was sort of...like an art history text, I guess.
The writing was excellent, but overall not terribly moving. I was surprised that I could read a book about sacrifice and love and not cry once, since those are two triggers for me. I think it was because it was coldly written in some portions, especially the last, exciting scenes, paradoxically with all that violence. I was strangely detached when I should have been riveted, perhaps because there was a "storytelling" tone to the language, rather than a more personal tone. The section that essentially described the painting was also poorly placed: it had the effect of putting the brakes on my emotional connection right before the build-up to the final action.
Repetition. At the beginning I noticed repeated words that are the sort of things a copyeditor usually catches, but I quickly figured out that they were (for the most part) deliberate--to hint to us at the repetitive nature of the love and sacrifice that we were about to experience--and then I thought it was clever. For example, "He still doesn't know why the man bothers him, but he does. He cannot work out why, when he's been nothing but helpful." (p. 28) And on that same page: "...he knows they are rare and delicate things, that tolerate only very finely balanced conditions in which to grow. In any case, it's an incredibly rare variety that grows so far north." Between pages 29 and 36 "freewheeled" or "freewheeling" are repeated 4 times. On pages 45-46, "The days pass." is repeated 4 times.
But then sometimes the repetition just seemed to be a sloppy mistake, as on p. 261: "'There!' shouts Merle, as they scramble down toward the shore, to the rocks. 'I have a boat!' Eric is shocked, too, too shocked to speak, or to question." I mean, maybe he'd like this example to be the same sort of driving repetition, but it's not lyrical here.
[Note: after re-reading the quotation I took from Sedgwick's blog interview up above, I see that it has similar problems with repetition--"work, work, which, which, which, forms, forms!" So now I'm thinking it's not always deliberate in the book, it's just his style. I don't know, though, since this is my first Sedgwick.]
There were two anachronisms: the use of "stardom" during the 1848 chapter involving Herr Graf, the composer (etymonline.com
says "stardom" is from 1865), and in the earliest era, the notion that with his hammer "Thorolf has hit a nerve, some part of his brain..." (neuroscience doesn't exist yet). Also, the actual word "vampire" is used for the earliest "Time Unknown" section, but the word "vampire" is from 1734. Is there a Norse myth equivalent to vampires? If not, I think he should have made up the term especially for the island (a term used over the years right up until 2073 or whatever).
Line breaks. The ornamental asterisks that usually indicate line breaks were far too frequent. They're great to use when a bit of time has passed, or the location has changed, but they were often there just between paragraphs for no reason.
Last thoughts. My overall impression is that Sedgwick was aiming to write something important, and it was a near miss, a great effort. But for some reason the multiple symbols peppered throughout became smoke and mirrors rather than substance for me. And by not focusing on one sort of love he lost the chance to delve into any one of them in depth.