From the start, "How To Hide In Winter" is strong on atmosphere: isolated - cold - damaged and with more damage to come - a history like a shadow beneath the ice on the lake.
The story is told through the eyes Kathleen, a young woman working alone in the only store still open in the National Park on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania in the depths of winter. She spends most of her day alone, reading and thinking.
Then "The Stranger" arrives, a lone Uzbekistani man, not dressed for winter, not sure of where he is or why.
She's trying to pretend she doesn't limp and isn't in pain from her injuries. He's scrupulously polite and unaggressive, trying hard to be invisible. Both of them are tantalisingly unexplained.
What follows is a powerful, beautifully written, deeply thoughtful novel that tackles raw emotions and complicated ideas without ever becoming dry or self-consciously literary.
On the surface, "Ways To Hide In Winter" could be seen as one of those woman-with-dark-secrets-in-her-past thrillers. If that's what you're looking for, this book will disappoint you. It's not a thriller nor a simple narrative about discovering the dark secrets in the pasts of the two main characters. It's a deeply meditative book, filled with the cold silence of winter and the slowly thawing emotions of rage and compassion of a woman who has been abused and traumatised.
Winter is central to the feel of this book. The physical winter in the Appalachians in Pennsylvania is almost a character in its own right: bleak but beautiful, familiar but deadly, ubiquitous and inescapable. It is also an extended metaphor for the emotional state of the two main characters, each with their own story of abuse, betrayal, secret shame and physical and emotional trauma that have left them scarred, isolated and trying to hide from their futures as much as from their pasts.
Like water beneath the layer of ice on the lake, Kathleen's emotions run deep, slow and cold. Her rage is fierce but struggling to find expression. It is the fevered heat experienced by the hypothermic as they struggle to survive the cold.
She is consumed with a quiet, barely contained rage. She rages at how her community is treated by the government:
“They sold us pain and said it was fine... They had such contempt for us, and they thought we didn’t see it. Just because we lived where we lived and were who we were.”
Rage at those in power, in Uzbekistan and in the US, who use torture, pain and humiliation to punish their enemies.
Rage at her recently deceased, violently abusive husband. Rage at all those who failed her: her parents, her priest, herself.
There is the possibility of hope, of support from her best friend and from men who are interested in her but she finds hope hard to trust, partly because she is not sure that she deserves it.
There is guilt and shame: her addiction to painkillers, her belief that everyone holds her accountable for her husband's death. There is responsibility for her sick grandmother. And there is, eventually, compassion, initially for The Stranger and finally for herself as she slowly and carefully considers what a person deserves.
The Stranger gives Kathleen another focus, someone as damaged and as vulnerable than she is. Someone quiet and indirect who may have done shameful things but who shows her only gentleness. Someone who makes her think about what living means. Through her contact with him, she starts to understand that by continuing to hide she is refusing to live. Staying where she is just a slower death, not survival.
The language is simple, beautiful and powerful. The pace is slow but in a way that builds tension, grabs attention and makes you focus on what's really happening. It demonstrates a nuanced understanding of abuse and powerlessness and their impact on identity and will.
The ending of the book doesn't offer any easy solutions. It seems to say that we all of us go through more than one winter. We move between light and dark. Perhaps being alive is about keeping moving. Perhaps compassion for others can help thaw our personal winters. Perhaps compassion just mitigates our guilt. Perhaps staying hidden is unsustainable because it is an extended act of abnegation.
"Ways To Hide in Winter" is Sarah St, Vincent's first novel. I'll definitely be reading her second.
I listened to the audiobook version which was performed brilliantly by Sarah Mollo-Christensen. To hear a sample of her performance, click on the SoundCloud link below.