Short Take: Beautiful, brilliant, just a little too long.
This review is a little different, as I’m writing it based on a re-read of a book I was blown away by earlier this year. I wanted to see if it would hold up to a second reading, knowing the final twist. I have to say, yes it did. It’s a credit to the author that her ability to build tension (and her style, let’s not forget her breathtaking way with words) still holds, even knowing the truth.
It’s Christmas morning, and Holly and her husband Eric have overslept. She awakens abruptly, with a thought that keeps pounding in her head and won’t let go: Something has followed them home from Russia. A failed writer, Holly wants nothing more than to find a quiet corner, and a pen and paper, and write it down, examine and understand it, but she can’t. Eric has to rush to the airport to pick up his parents, and Holly needs to get Tatiana to help her make Christmas dinner for the house full of company they are expecting.
Tatiana is their daughter, adopted from Russia at 22 months old. She’s now a 15 year old beauty, with exotic black hair and eyes. Her skin is so pale and her lips are so dark that both of them appear to have a bluish cast at times. In many ways, she’s a typical teenager, angry then sulking then laughing then crying, sometimes in the space of a few minutes.
But there’s more to Tatiana than it would appear. When Eric must take his parents to the hospital instead of home, and a blizzard keeps everyone else away, Holly and Tatiana are left with only each other – and with whatever may have followed them home from Russia.
It’s a tense, claustrophobic, nerve-wracking day. Tatiana is helpful one minute, raging the next, and to Holly, she begins to look less and less familiar, and more and more dangerous and out of control.
Laura Kasischke is a poet. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense, she has written several award-winning volumes of poetry. You can definitely feel her poetic roots in Mind of Winter. The first section, when Holly becomes convinced that her family has somehow been cursed since they brought Tatiana home is the most perfect example of incremental repetition I have ever read. The list of bad things, small and large, that have befallen them in the past thirteen years keeps growing. It’s brilliant, and sets the mood for the rest of Mind of Winter – the sense that things will keep going more and more wrong, that the bad energy will keep building on itself until there is some kind of explosion.
Unfortunately, the final third or so of this book really dragged. It could be because I knew what was coming, but there were so many fetishistic descriptions of Tatty’s appearance, and what felt like the same scene being played over and over in terms of Holly’s interactions with Tatiana.
But then the ending happens, and holy hell, is it good. Even knowing what was coming, the ending was so damned great. From Holly and Tatiana and the overwrought Christmas they are having, to the horrific heart-breaking truth in just a few sentences…. it’s a slap to the senses. It’s that “Wait, WHAT??” reaction that makes you go back and re-read the last few pages, then read them again. And then, when it all sinks in, and you understand, it gets under your skin in a way that (if you’re me), you have to read the entire book again a few months later to see if that really just happened (short answer: yes). It’s like being submerged in an overheated hot tub, only to be forcefully yanked into a snowstorm.
So yes, Mind of Winter was great, and nearly as strong on the second reading as on the first. Laura Kasischke is a genius at building and immersing the reader in atmosphere. My only gripe is that it might have worked better as a slightly shorter story.
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS