The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old.
Ever since her father died of a heart attack, Ruthie's mother has been overly protective of her and her sister. For an eighteen-year old girl, though, this protection quickly becomes stifling. When her mother vanishes one night, though, Ruthie is forced to take responsibility for herself and her younger sister. As she searches the farm house where they all live, though, she begins to realise that her mother's disappearance may be due to something much darker and more horrific than she could imagine. Something linked to an old diary that she finds hidden beneath the floorboards in her mother's room...
The Winter People was an Amazon pick of the month, but also a book that had come up on multiple blogs as a book to look out for. The hugely atmospheric cover is really eye-catching and the blurb seemed to indicate that it would be a thriller with a historical bent. Since that is definitely my kind of book, I picked it up and delved into it as soon as I could. What I found, though, was not at all what I had expected. It was better!
Set in the same house but in two different time periods, The Winter People tells the story of two women - Sara, a young mother who loses her daughter in tragic circumstances and whose story is told through a diary she left behind after her own death, and Ruthie, a young daughter whose mother has vanished, leaving her alone with her young sister. Both stories intertwine and eventually collide, bringing with them a number of other women whose lives have been affected in one way or another by Sara's story. Secrets are revealed on both sides of the temporal gap, building to a terrifying and troubling conclusion.
Although I was expecting a thriller that would combine the two time periods together, The Winter People actually has much more of a horror vibe. As I was reading the first few chapters of the modern section, Stephen King came to mind: a small town with a number of past secrets and crimes, strange disappearances revolving around mysterious part of the nearby forest, a young protagonist struggling with her family's rules. Where Stephen King - whose work I am a big fan of - would probably have developed this into a sprawling epic with a dozen different viewpoint characters, McMahon keeps this story very closely focused on three women - Sara, Ruthie and another woman called Helen, who has recently lost her husband. While a handful of chapters are told through the eyes of Sara's husband, it is this triumvirate of women who form the core of the novel.
The horror elements are very low key, hinted at in the historical parts through Sara's aunt and her stories of sleepers. Right from the start, we understand that these are some kind of zombie, though it is not until later in the novel that we discover how much of what Sara's Auntie has told her is true. Most of the historical section is devoted to the mystery of Sara's death - McMahon does a good job of playing with expectations as we hear the rumours in the modern part that have evolved out of what happened back at the beginning of the century. Not until the conclusion of the novel do we understand what really happened and all of its implications. These historical chapters are extremely well done and it is clear that McMahon has done her research.
In the modern part, Ruthie and Helen are very well drawn characters, though I found Helen's storyline to be especially touching as she tries to make sense of her husband's seemingly senseless death in a car accident. Fearing that he was having an affair, Helen abandons her entire life and moves to the town where Ruthie lives. The two storylines are entirely separate until much later in the novel, where we discover the unusual and unexpected links that bind them.
The book ends with a creepy-as-hell confrontation in a cave system in the woods, and while I won't give away any of the great surprises and twists, I will say that I found the ending for Helen to be particularly haunting! I promise that you will be thinking about the final couple of paragraphs of her last chapter for hours after closing the book.
The Winter People is one of a number of books I have read since the beginning of the year split over two time periods and with either a crime/thriller bent or a supernatural one. It is also one of the best. Suspenseful, marvelously well-written, with a keen eye for detail in the historical sections and a great trio of female characters at its core, the novel stayed with me in the days after finishing it. At its heart, The Winter People has a lot to say about the relationship between mothers and daughters, and beyond that the relationships between us all. It is the first book by Jennifer McMahon I have read, but will certainly not be the last! I gave The Winter People 5 skin-peeling sleepers out of 5.
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From the Blogosphere:
Beth Fish Reads
Caffeinated Book Reviewer
The Lost Entwife
From the Author's Mouth:
Interview over at the Quirky Bookworm