Strasbourg’s historic city centre, the Grande Île (Grand Island), was classified a World Heritage Site in 1988. The city sits on the border, formed by the River Rhine, between France and Germany. Over many years it has come under both countries’ jurisdictions but is currently French. It is the official seat of the European Parliament. It has a long history of excellence in higher-education with its university boasting many famous alumni including nineteen Nobel Laureates.
How Pale the Winter Has Made Us, by Adam Scovell, is set in Strasbourg and the place is as strong a character as any of the people the author has created. Narrated by Isabelle, an English academic, it opens a few days after her partner, who she had been staying with for several weeks, sets off to travel in South America. Isabelle has imminent plans to return to England where she is to take up a hard won post at her university. Alone in her partner’s flat she receives news that her father has committed suicide, hanging himself from a tree in Crystal Palace. Isabelle was not close to either of her parents – the failed artist father and the harridan mother – but finds herself haunted by grief in the form of a shadowy and threatening figure, the Erl-King.
Ignoring all attempts to communicate, including emails and texts from her mother and employer, Isabelle sets out to map aspects of the history of Strasbourg from the perspective of its famous inhabitants – including Gutenberg, Goethe and Jean-Hans Arp. She offers no explanation for her behaviour, suppressing any feelings of responsibility. The reader may ponder if her reaction is driven by innate self-destruction or self-preservation.
Isabelle chooses the subjects of her research from statues she passes when out wandering the streets, or plaques she spots on the walls of historic buildings. She visits coffee shops and mines the internet, hiding out in her partner’s flat that she has not, after all, vacated. She talks to street vendors, the homeless, and strangers she encounters who show an interest in the tokens she accumulates – photographs, postcards and examples of writer’s work. She immerses herself in this research in an attempt to block out thoughts of her dead father, hanging from a tree. Her mother’s cruel jibes relentlessly seep in – resentment at being sidelined by her child, attributing blame even for existing along with dereliction of perceived duty.
The narrative has a sense of dislocation. Isabelle is trying to piece together aspects of Strasbourg’s history as she herself gradually fragments. In stepping off life’s conveyor belt she chooses isolation but cannot quite escape the haunting knowledge and memories. Through the months of winter she sinks into grief, shrinking and fading as her research builds.
The writing is elusive in places but also an appreciative evocation of the city. The urban landscape, culture and people are portrayed with an eye to what is often overlooked by tourists. Amidst the bleakness of Isabelle’s internal trajectory, there is colour in the language, such as when Isabelle is book shopping:
“I picked each volume up, noticing the beautiful texture of the paper used for many of their covers; as if the book had just been printed in the back room of the shop and left out like freshly baked bread.”
Jarring comments from Isabelle’s mother are interspersed with Isabelle’s personal reflections – an effective device for showing how the most hurtful words cannot be unheard. There are also reproductions of certain photographs Isabelle collects, those that prompted her to research the circumstances of the moment captured. These include intersections between people – the successful and the frustrated – and art in its many incarnations.
My early impressions of this book were that it was a slow burn as I sought to connect with its voice. The further in I went the more I realised I was chasing a shadowy spirit, one with haunting potential. Alongside the history of Strasbourg – which may well make readers wish to visit – is a study of grief in a family lacking mutual respect and support. That none of this is presented plainly makes the unwrapping of meaning more rewarding. A poignant, intriguing and ultimately satisfying read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.