It is not often you read a book and want to go round hitting people over the head with it and saying READ THIS. And I'm sure it won't be necessary for me to do that as I think lots of people are going to read and fall in love with this book without me having to hit them. But that is just how I feel about this book - it is an epic, mythic amazing love story from a master craftsman and here are seven things you should know about it:
1. This story is about love
Midwinterblood is about Eric and Merle, whose love survives centuries and death as their souls meet again and again throughout time. The book is told in seven stories and in each one Eric and Merle meet in a different way. Once they are lovers, another time mother and son; they find each other as artist and muse, brother and sister and in one story they don’t even meet. But what is the same in every story is that they love each other. The book challenges the idea of seeing love only as romantic love and shows the different ways that two people can be so powerfully connected that they are prepared to sacrifice everything. You may get a bit weepy.
2. It is told in seven parts.
Each part of the book tells the story of a different Eric and Merle and is set in a different time. The first one is set in 2073. Eric is a journalist visiting a mysterious island called Blessed Isle, where apparently people never die. He meets and falls in love with a woman called Merle. As events take a turn for the creepy on the ever so slightly Wicker Man-like island, Eric feels like he's been there before - and he has. Each story goes further back in time, revisiting the island at different moments, and we see that Eric and Merle's story spans thousands of years. Sedgewick writes in different styles, so that each story so that it seems to have come from the time it is set in. The first, has a Wicker Man-like feel in a future where the island is completely isolated from the modern world, while the story set in Victorian times is more gothic and the Viking story has a sense of the gruesome, matter-of-fact sagas.
3. Each story will get you hooked
Although the seven parts are of course all linked together, each one could be a story one its own. I found that I got caught up in each part, almost forgetting that this wasn’t the whole book, because of the way you immediately get to know and care about the characters. Alongside Eric and Merle there are a host of other people whose lives you glimpse in each part – particularly in the story set in 2011 and the one set at the second world war – and it was a bit of a shock to start a new chapter and to find all those people gone.
4. It was inspired by a painting
One of the things that inspired Marcus Sedgwick to write this book was seeing this painting in the National Museum in Stockholm:
It is Minvinterblot, painted by Carl Larsson in 1915 and shows the sacrifice of a pagan king in another to avert famine. Or, as Sedgwick noticed, it is moment just before the sacrifice. A frozen moment full of unknown tensions and smaller stories that called out for him to explore. This is the moment where Eric and Merle start their story and so trigger off all of the other stories. The painting’s themes of sacrifice and connections between individuals surviving death are the driving force behind the whole book. We see the events of the painting as they happened, we see them become legend for later inhabitants of the island and we then see an artist create the painting at the beginning of the 20th century. (Also, the evil-looking executioner man in the red robe is on the front cover.)
5. Look out for the hare
Yes, I know the picture is of a rabbit, but I like it because it is wearing glasses and reading a book. There are lots of linking objects running throughout all of the stories and phrases that different characters repeat. One of them is a hare, but I will leave you to find the rest as it is quite satisfying noticing echoes of one story in another. It makes you say 'oh, how clever', which is always good when reading. It makes you see how phrases, ideas and stories are handed down and repeated over centuries, changing and mutating over time, but that what remains the same throughout is people and the way they feel about each other.
6. The power of storytelling
Another thing I took from the book is the way that stories capture and preserve people's lives and keep them living after they are gone. (Just like it says at the beginning of the last Harry Potter book - SOB). The characters in the painting are preserved forever even though different audiences will interpret them differently. In one of the book’s sections a governess tells some children a story about two lovers and we see how the storyteller can alter what really happened through the way they shape their story. In another part of the book a young girl hears the story of a brave man, connecting her strongly to someone she never knew.
7. It is really good and you should read it
Stars: SEVEN out of five
If you like this, you may like: Other books by Marcus Sedgwick, like White Crow, which I may have reviewed here. For another combination of love with frightening historical horrors, try Theresa Breslin’s Prisoner of the Inquistion. Or for epic sets of stories told over centuries and linked together, try David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.