With Love Despite Winter



Cold Snap by Francis King (Arcadia)

Love stirs in circumstances unlikely to allow its survival. The more the odds stack up against a happy conclusion, the greater the effort the star-crossed undertake to prove the validity of their feelings.

Cold Snap is a novel set in a particular winter, 1947, in the refined and snowy setting of Oxford, but one under which the long shadow of the Second World War stretches across that idyllic whiteness. Michael, a former pilot, has returned to academia and a comfortable house. After risking his life in conflict, he is gathering up the strands which he was forced to abandon before fate so savagely intervened. The same applies to his cousin Christine, a gifted scholar whose studies have resumed after two years of intelligence work. Their gentile existence is neatly counter-balanced by the lives of stragglers. Dislocated from their homeland, the German prisoners who live in a camp on the outskirts of the town have no such luxury, and cannot so easily pick up the shards of their shattered lives. As restrictions relax, the two worlds slowly meld, and King deftly annotates these contrasts and contradictions. After a chance conversation Michael instigates with a prisoner, an unlikely set of visitors become uneasy friends. Christine meets Thomas, a sensitive and gifted musician with whom she begins an uneasy affair, and Michael becomes profoundly attached to the difficult Klaus, wounded both emotionally and physically, and unaware of the passion he has has innocently stirred. King brilliantly balances the turmoil they all encounter. All are living outside of convention, but Christine refuses to bow to the pettiness of post-war sensibilities, and follows her heart into a remarkable and defiant act of going against the grain. Although Michael recognizes the pointlessness of his plight, it doesn't hinder his acts of kindness to a man who is at best grudgingly appreciative. These characters are drawn with profound sympathy, so the reader empathizes with them and wills them on in the hope of a more positive set of circumstances.

A few months shy of his eighty-seventh birthday, Francis King has delivered a perfectly assured work. It is both an enchanting period-piece and a timeless treatise on the powerful feelings that drive and shape every generation, but it never falls victim to mawkish sentiment. A novel of elegance, insight, and poise, it has a filmic edge that would allow it to be easily dramatized. That it is set at such a particular time, and in a time of heavy snow, only enhances the power within. It is his fiftieth book, but one which should bring him fresh admirers. He proves that talent only improves with age.

Like Diana Athill, who has found major recognition in her nineties with the commercial appeal a literary sensibility rarely finds, this book justifies -- and is equally capable of reaping -- such a late but deserving harvest.