Book Review: The Winter House by Nicci Gerrard

Marnie Still receives an unexpected telephone call from an old friend, Oliver Fenton, who she hasn’t heard from in years. A mutual friend, Ralph  Tinsley, is dying of cancer and has summoned Marnie to his home in Scotland. This must be a very special friendship because Marnie puts her London life on hold and heads north.

What ensues from the dash to Scotland is Marnie recounting the story of their meeting and subsequent friendship to Ralph, not knowing if he can hear her or make sense of what she's saying. The telling is made more poignant by the reader's access to Ralph's thoughts and memories, the ones he cannot voice because of his morphine-induced state.

From the first few chapters as Marnie prepares to leave for Scotland, it is evident there has been an estrangement between a  group of friends consisting of Marnie, Oliver, Ralph and Lucy. This happened one summer, over twenty years ago. It’s an entangled relationship the four share as they go from adolescence to adulthood.

I felt sorry for Ralph, but I didn't like him. He was selfish, unreliable and unpredictable, though there were glimpses of another Ralph under that volatile nature. At times Marnie resented his intrusion into her family life, but was always there for him in times of crises. Ralph, however, did redeem himself in my eyes once I'd finished the novel and reflected on the ending. What I thought was a final selfish demand of summoning Marnie to his bedside could be interpreted as Ralph's means of atonement, a way of re-uniting Marnie and Oliver.

Nicci Gerrard's descriptions of the remote cottage and the landscape were excellent. I loved the imagery of the wintry setting: the shortening of the days as Ralph’s life is getting shorter and the warmth of the cottage reflecting the feelings of the people cocooned within its walls.

Knowing early on that one of the main characters was going to die, I expected to be thoroughly depressed by the end of the book, but I wasn’t. I was prepared for a mass out pouring of grief and lots of sentimentality when Ralph finally dies, but this didn't eventuate. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised that despite the gloomy subject matter, I was left feeling happy and uplifted.

The Winter House moves gently in and out of the past to the inevitable outcome. It is a story of unrequited love, jealousy and betrayal. It explores how friendships form, what draws us to one another and how the ties of family and friends are never truly broken.

I don’t know what made me choose this novel. Nicci Gerrard doesn't write in the genre I usually read, but I’m glad I added this one to my reading pile.

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