Midwinter, by Fiona Melrose: new book set in Suffolk
- Credit: Archant
‘I wore velvet shoes, spent long nights in cocktail bars...’ But then city girl Fiona Melrose lost her heart to eerie rural Suffolk
She came nearly a decade ago, trading South Africa’s light and heat for rural Suffolk but relishing the idea of change. A city girl – “I wore velvet shoes, spent long nights in cocktail bars” – she’d never lived on a farm but now settled on the land: alone most of the time, with only the animals for company.
Her new life was, she discovered, incredibly confronting. She found the sounds of foxes barking at night very disturbing and felt very isolated. The darkness of the Suffolk countryside was intense, particularly in winter.
The sense of being caught between earth and water, as she lived beneath the county’s big skies, on its flat lands and close to the sea, was eerie.
It was difficult but also life-altering. Not knowing anyone locally forces you inside yourself quite dramatically. She suspects she began writing simply to create another “voice” other than her own. The page and the words on it were a kind of conversation – a way to mitigate the intensity of her situation.
No wonder Fiona Melrose wrote her first novel. No wonder it’s set in the Suffolk countryside.
Midwinter is a heart-breaking story about a farming family, set between Suffolk and Zambia. It’s about grief, guilt and the weight of family love.
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Suffolk farmers and father and son Landyn and Vale Midwinter are men of the land. Times are tough and they’re fighting for their livelihood and their heritage in the face of competition from big business.
There’s another battle. A personal one. Cecelia, their beloved wife and mother, suffered a horrible death in Zambia a decade earlier. The tension between father and son is ready to erupt. They have to do what they’ve fought not to: deal with the past.
Over a particularly severe Suffolk winter, Landyn and Vale grapple with their memories and pain, as their fragile relationship wobbles. Vale makes a series of desperate decisions and Landyn backs off, finding comfort in the land, his animals, and a fox that seems to offer solace and protection.
Fiona’s in the Johannesburg café where she writes each day. It’s very hot outside (34C, to be precise) and the aircon is a blessing. The baristas are gossiping about a customer who regularly comes in and steals chocolates by slipping them into his newspaper. He is a wealthy gentleman, apparently – very patrician and a little haughty.
There is nothing on Fiona’s table except her computer and her coffee – which is how she always writes. “I don’t like any clutter or mess: nothing that requires my attention,” she says.
So: questions. Tell all.
“I grew up in Johannesburg, during South Africa’s apartheid years. It was a very sheltered upbringing – there was a lot of state censorship, for example – and white South Africans in general enjoyed a privileged life.
“I disliked school but loved the rigour and intensity of university – it felt like home. I studied politics and eventually taught it for a short while, and worked as a researcher in various NGOs, and then…”
“I am naturally restless and in my mid-20s found Johannesburg was a very small, very conservative city. I wanted to travel and generally expand my sense of the world. London is always an easy option, language-wise.”
A culture shock?
“Not hugely. I am too South African to ever be truly English, but by the same token I was never truly South African. Before I ever came to the UK, people often asked if I was English. I seem to have lived in both continents even before I did, if that makes sense. There were of course things that required navigation but nothing close to ‘shock’.”
Fiona was actually accepted to study for a doctorate in the UK, but the exchange rate at that time put UK university fees impossibly out of reach.
“So, I had to make other plans. After various hideous temping jobs…” and work in a sector whose morals went against the grain, she looked in the small ads and got a post as a trainee emerging markets currency analyst. As you do.
“I knew absolutely nothing about currencies but my background in politics in Africa was helpful and an analytical brain can be applied to most subjects if you work hard enough. I have always considered jobs to be someone paying me to learn something new.”
And what about East Anglia?
“The move to Suffolk came later. My family visited the area often, as I had a great aunt in Orford and cousins in Woodbridge – so it was familiar.
“My brother and sister in law bought a small farm in Great Bealings (between Ipswich and Woodbridge – 125 acres virtually bordering Seckford golf course) and were living between there and London. I liked the idea of another change. It was agreed I would live on the farm and look after the creatures.”
It was eerie and isolated, but also a good experience – the farm proving “the most magical, revelatory place. Living there, observing the seasons daily, walking for hours each day across fields with dogs in any weather, was extraordinary.
“The animals, weather, light – all have become so much a part of me that I still dream I am walking there.”
Fiona lived in Suffolk for more than six years – “nearly seven, I think. I went back to live in Johannesburg. I had decided a while before I left that as soon as I had finished my masters (in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London) and had finished Midwinter, that I would leave. I like to keep moving and I knew my time in Suffolk was at an end.” How exactly did Midwinter come to her?
“The entire book came out of a short story I wrote as a course requirement for my MA in writing at Birkbeck. I knew as soon as I had written the story that this was not the end of the story, but that what I had written was the end of a larger story involving the older farmer I had written about.
“He became Landyn Midwinter and I then set about writing my way towards that end. I gave him someone to share that journey, a son, Vale, and the rest grew out of that.”
Was it hard to imagine a farmer’s life – tough circumstances and slightly claustrophobic, mentally?
“It was an easy step, living on the farm in Bealings. I simply wrote what I saw on my walks: snow, fallen-down trees, foxes, rabbits. It would be creatively irresponsible to resist such a richly evocative environment.”
What are the themes, does she think?
“It looks at guilt and grief. How people, and men in particular, navigate that terrain.” By moving her farmers around various locations in Suffolk – such as a church in Halesworth, a particular tree in the Fynn Valley, a pub in Woodbridge or a boat off Orford Ness, say – she could “press them into situations that might force a response or prick the boil of active memory”.
Foxes feature strongly, too – and, in her own Suffolk experiences, almost haunted Fiona. What does she mean?
“From the moment I arrived in Suffolk there seemed to be foxes everywhere. Quite apart from them stalking around the farm after rabbits (usually at dusk) I had a number of fairly brutal encounters with them.
“The dogs got in a scrap with a young vixen on a walk. I raced across five fields with her in my arms but she died. I was devastated.
“I found two dead foxes. Beautiful old boys: one in the woods, another in a field.
“They stared at me across fences, startled me in the woods. I felt they were everywhere. They have a very unsettling and powerful totemic energy. There is nothing benign in a fox. In the way that there is nothing benign about a raven’s energy – it demands attention.
“I am also very steeped in the poems of Ted Hughes. He too believed in the powerful ancient magic that creatures hold. Living in Suffolk made that very real for me.”
And while we’re on the slightly spooky stuff, what about Suffolk’s “often eerie nature”?
“There is something in the flatness and sameness of some areas that give it a sense of endlessness. The light of the skies, too, can play tricks and give it a sense of shift and drift.
“I can’t always explain it. It does have a distinct emotional weather to it – it’s not twee or pretty in the way that some other counties are. You have to work a little harder in Suffolk; it requires a deeper engagement.”
Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh – “the cathedral of the marshes”, just off the A12 – also lodged itself in the author’s imagination, and became part of her fiction. Cecelia, the wife and mother, is laid to rest there.
“It is an extraordinary place. Just its dominance over its landscape is extraordinary: the architecture and what was achieved and at what cost; the lives lost in the construction of the church.
“I happened across it. I have never been there in good weather, so it is always a place I associate with huge dramatic skies, wetness, cold. It seems to have its own temper about it. The marshlands below are very eerie, the smell of salt… I could go on.
“And then, inside the church, these exquisite carved roof angels, still with some of their original colours. I love going there. It always reveals another layer.
“I would hope people would visit it and spend some time there. And hopefully remember to make a donation to ensure the roof angels are always kept safe and well.”
Judging by a blog entry, it seems Suffolk has won a permanent place in her affections… and that our eerie earthiness sometimes calls to her still in sunny Africa.
Fiona once wrote: “My routes are habitual and my life seems to have sunk to a routine of writing in the same cafe every early morning, then driving to my job, home, then to the same dog park and back home again.
“My friends and I eat in the same three or four restaurants and, in a country where there are no divisible seasons and every day is warm and sunny, there is no passage of time, nor sense of birth and death and renewal.
“I do not suffer from sensory overload; I suffer from sensory deprivation. Fatal to a writer’s craft.”
Go Suffolk, then! What does she miss about it?
“I love that Suffolk is both fish and field – the proximity to the sea is something I crave and I never come back here without spending time on a beach. I miss the sound of seagulls.”
(Interesting that Fiona’s using the word “here”, when she’s still sitting in Johannesburg!)
“Since I first came to live in Bealings, nearly 10 years ago now, I do feel Suffolk has changed hugely. It does seem to have fewer eccentrics – or perhaps they are better at hiding – and more sports cars roaring around the lanes. It might be my imagination, though!”
How often does she fly over here?
“I come back once or twice a year, though it is not always possible – mostly to visit my brother and sister in law and my magnificent nieces. But also on book-related work – I like to keep in touch with my agent, who is in London, and my publisher too.
“Most of my friends are in London, as opposed to Suffolk, but there are people in Suffolk who are so dear to me and to come back and take a long walk through the fields with them feels like a wonderful homecoming.”
Fiona’s second novel is already finished. It’s called Johannesburg. “The entire story takes place on one day: the day Nelson Mandela died – December 6, 2013. It is very consciously influenced by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.”
She’s now working on a third – “which, as things stand, involves a return to Suffolk, though I cannot say how it will work out in the end”. She’s staying in South Africa “for the time being. For now, I work well there”. (Or here!)
“I don’t really believe in hopes and dreams. Rather, work and focus.”
Midwinter is published by Corsair at £16.99, hardback