Wintering review – learning to love the cold

Katherine May brings a poet’s eye to this enthralling celebration of our fallow season

If therapy is a talking cure, this beautiful book – Wintering – is a reading cure. Not that it sets out in a know-it-all way to enlighten. It is too internalised for that. It is a personal, original and wayward examination of the idea that, as humans, we have – and need to have – our fallow seasons, that we must learn to revel in days when the light is low (one of her convincing thoughts is that we live in an overlit age). This is a winter’s tale of hard-won celebration, but – in keeping with other memoirs – it begins with what we are braced to predict will be a catastrophe.

Just before Katherine May’s 40th birthday, her husband – referred to as H – is stricken with appendicitis on Folkestone beach. He is rushed to hospital, where his appendix bursts. May persecutes the nurses on his behalf (“I’m usually too embarrassed to order my own takeaway, but this was different”). His life hangs in the balance, but after making a wonderful and, to us, unexpected recovery, he practically disappears from May’s narrative. It is a rum start because he is so abruptly dropped, his story giving way to hers. May becomes ill and takes leave (before departing altogether) from her job as a creative writing director at Canterbury Christ Church University. Desolation, stomach pain and a gnawing fear of being perceived to be malingering collide. In passing, she mentions that, in adulthood, she was diagnosed as autistic.

“There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them to somewhere else,” she writes. She researches the somewhere-elseness of winter – not as a journalist might, but more like a poet with an angled take on things, an instinctive sense of beauty, a helpless appreciation of comedy. “We must learn to invite the winter in. That is what this book is about: learning to recognise the process, engage with it mindfully, even to cherish it. We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how.”

She cooks her way ahead before winter overwhelms: “I feel I am cooking autumn into my house,” but she does not let the romance of the kitchen falsify her struggles. Amusing paragraphs are dedicated to her failed bagels. In the small hours, unable to sleep, she lights candles and reads. She seems always to have access to the perfect image: “Now that I’m upright, my thoughts settle like a snow globe.” And she stirs our appetite for the quiet described. Her book has the quality of a meditation, a peaceful rebuff to life in fast-forward.

After an engrossing account of bathing with her son in the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, she determines to import Iceland to Kent (she lives in Whitstable) and become a sauna devotee. But she has a gift for unleashing unexpected comedy, especially when her intentions are most earnest. Inconveniently given her subject, the sauna has a disastrous effect. She fetches up on the floor of a swimming pool cubicle, calling out for water.

There is an entertaining account of a visit to Stonehenge for the winter solstice, where she finds herself in mixed company. The first crowd, at the heritage cafe, is in late middle age with clothes by M&S (one or two wear cloaks) and forgoing the nettle wine on offer. The second is a ragged new age group like the “bitter end of a rock festival”. Here, as elsewhere, she is embarrassed by having no familiarity with ritual. And yet she often finds the sublime when least expected. Later, she considers Carol Ann Duffy’s moving line: “Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer utters itself”, and buttresses it with her own experience: “For my own part, they [prayers] open up a space in which to host thoughts that I would otherwise find silly or ridiculous: that voiceless awe at the passing of time. The way everything changes. The way everything stays the same. The way those things are bigger than I am, and more than I can hold.”

There is so much to treasure here – most of all, her fantastic descriptions of swimming in a winter sea: the assault of cold water, its steely embrace, the highs it produces – masochism mixed with salvation. “We have crossed a glorious, brave unspoken line,” she declares, as if swimming were a form of transgression. Her winter is customised. It is open season for all her ideas. I love the surprises of this book. Most of all, it is about the comforts of language. Reading is like slipping into a fur coat. May could protectively convince us of anything – the pleasures of cold weather, slow days, dusty libraries. They all start to seem like prizes and her sensual connoisseurship a joy.

• Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen by Katherine May is published by Rider (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

Contributor

Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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