Wednesday 10 January 2024

A Midwinter's Tail, Lili Hayward

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It’s the night of the Christmas party at Mina’s London office when she opens a letter from her estranged godfather Davy. Mina - please look after her. is all it says alongside a key to his cottage on the remote Cornish island of Morgelyn. On the brink of a meeting that will potentially save her job, she chooses to leave London on the first train to Cornwall where a rickety plane waits to take her back to an island that holds so much repressed emotion for her.

Having spent time there with her mother and Davy as a child, she’d been excited at the prospect of moving there. A cruel trick of fate tore her mother away and sent Mina to live alone with her father. He was distant and did not provide the emotional support she needed to process what had happened, sending her away to a boarding school. In adulthood their relationship remains fractured, although they both go through the motions of staying in touch. She didn’t hear from Davy after her mother’s death, and what has always felt like a betrayal still stings. How will she feel being back on the island, even if only briefly?

When she finally arrives on Morgelyn, still in her party outfit, she’s met with a cold reception by the locals, as if she had abandoned Davy and not the other way round. She goes to the cottage to check on Murr, the cat who she remembers but can’t believe is still around. She learns that Murr is tied to ancient myths surrounding the island with people suspecting that a centuries old spirit lives within her. She is the guardian of the cottage and her presence there means ownership can’t be passed on.

Mina soon meets Davy’s family, who she is told he doesn’t get on with. They seem much friendlier to her than the rest of the island and she soon agrees for them to look after Murr, seemingly missing the negative way they refer to her. It soon becomes clear that she can’t take anything at face value and she must choose between going back to London to save her job or staying and trying to save the island.

It is Mina and her relationship with other characters, albeit most of them absent, which is the heart of the novel. We see her mother only in brief flashbacks but it’s clear that she was integral to the feeling of safety and warmth she remembers. It’s also apparent that Mina resembles her in more than just appearance. The relationship with Davy is intriguing. She seems to have been very attached to him and yet we only hear of such a short period spent together. Short, but significant. It is not until quite late in the book that we see his history with her mother and how he came to be Mina’s godfather.

The island is also absolutely central to the story. We see how remote and forbidding it can be. Mina is not welcomed with open arms and it is uncomfortable reading her struggle to ignore the whispers behind her back, the thinly veiled judgment. You can feel how claustrophobic it would be living there if you made a misstep and the locals turned against you. On the other hand, we also see how warm it can be, how like a big family as the islanders band together to save Davy’s cottage. Their traditions bring them together and there’s an affection for each other’s eccentricities. 

This is a lovely book to read in winter. Its story might be predictable but it is well written and evocative. Folklore is interwoven with the story, adding a sense of magic, and there is a subtle undercurrent of romance which doesn’t overtake the main focus. This is wonderful escapist reading with a real heart, I definitely had tears in my eyes as I read the closing passages. The cover design also deserves a special mention, beautifully fitting, it makes you want to pick it up.

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