Friday, December 1, 2017

BOOK REVIEW & LIT ANALYSIS: The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley

Genre: Young Adult Paranormal Suspense/Horror

~Book Review~
2 Stars

*No outright spoilers in this section, but this review hints at them through discussion of the novel's flaws. 

Michael Vyner is orphaned, lost, and distraught as he’s nudged from his mother’s grave to the guardianship of his benefactor. An isolated and foreboding estate awaits him along with its secrets, horrors, and mysteries.

From the start, the first person narration echoes elements of gothic fiction while evoking nods to Victorian works such as Dicken’s and later horror techniques of Stephen King (think Great Expectations meets The Shining). While the writing was promising and the scenes well painted, after a while it was clear that this story was nothing new, and in fact, rehashing something quite tired and old.

I have no clue how this story has garnered so much recommendation and praise. I chose it for use with a mystery literary unit for my children’s homeschool studies, and while we will still be reading it, the discussion will focus less on the mystery and suspense and more on the lacking presentations of women. Though let it be said that falling on clichéd prototypes also highlights an author’s inept ability to formulate complex and developed antagonists alongside a failure to craft a compelling reveal and resolution in the mystery genre.

The real horror here is the novel’s reliance on flat, stereotypical depictions of female characters. That kind of characterization isn’t simply cringe-worthy; it’s archaic. One dimensional characterization that feminist literary scholars have been decrying for decades should not be appearing in young adult fiction written in 2012! Modern fiction writers should know when to draw on classic literary periods and when to transcend them. There’s nothing to be gained by emulating the relegation of women into stifling representations of either angel or monster, where they are either helpless victims or evil incarnate.  To add insult to injury, the novel then exults in affirming the male characters’ sensibilities of insight, perception, understanding, and heroism. And thus, the young male protagonist finds kinship with the mature male characters, joining the good old boy club of fiction, of “heroes” it seems. (Even the male dog is portrayed this way.) This is not the type of coming-of-age story, one where all the women in the male’s life have deserted him, traumatized him, or been made helpless victims, that young male readers should be reading, nor is it one that young females should accept.

Instead of recommending this title to other readers, let me recommend a book to the author—Gilbert and Gubar’s The Mad Woman in the Attic would be a nice start. While Mr. Priestly may have familiarized himself with modern horror fiction and gothic literature for inspiration, it’s clear he has not cracked open this fundamental publication in feminist literary analysis and learned that savvy women readers have long been onto the misrepresentations of women in fiction by men, a misrepresentation that this novel perpetuates.

I do not recommend this book to young adults, but if your teen is reading it, the following discussion should accompany it. 

~A Feminist Literary Character Analysis~
This section is designed for parents, educators, and readers to fully understand the lacking presentations of women depicted in this novel. If you are reading this section, it is assumed you are more focused on content and analysis than spoilers or you have already read the book.

Feminist Literary Criticism
Feminist literary criticism is an area of literary analysis that focuses on the presentations of women, gender roles, and women’s issues in literature.  It often looks at how women are depicted and the inherent messages in those portrayals. Issues of power, control, sex, and gender are just some of the angles that a work of fiction may be explored. What it often uncovers are the ways that texts marginalize, suppress, and/or exclude women.

The Angel and the Monster
Feminist literary scholars and women writers have long been troubled by these limiting presentations of women by male writers. These archetypes of polarizing, but equally pigeonholing, presentations of women have littered literary works for centuries. 

The Angel— Otherwise known as the male ideal, this stereotype has changed very little from its divine vision of purity in early writings down to the more modern housewives in fiction. The message stays the same.  These women are passive and powerless, polite and pure, selfless and subordinate; civil and sometimes childlike. 

The Monster—The angel’s polar opposite is an aggressor. Cunning, selfish, freakish, mad, materialistic, murderous, and often an abomination, the monster is evil and darkness, deceptive, often tempting males.

Female Characters in The Dead of Winter
(In order of appearance)
Mrs. Vyner:  She is never given a first name, referred to only as her role in life and now as the deceased mother of the male protagonist.  Not much is divulged about the woman who has birthed and raised Michael other than she was a widow, a “proud woman,” not greedy, who resented charity, but accepted it in minimal portions in order to support her son.
“But my mother had never been strong, though she had borne her hardships with great courage (5).
Pious, revered, humble…Michael's mother embroiders the angel image. 

Mr. Bentley’s wife:  The second female character spotted in the novel is also not given a first name, nor is she, as a living character, given a line of dialogue. She “had been standing at a respectful distance” from the grave and the men’s conversation (6). While the reader does not learn much about her, it’s clear from just this brief glimpse that she knows her subordinate place. 

Lady Margaret Claredon: The first female character to receive a full name, although her initial introduction as part of the suspense plot leaves her identity a mystery for a while, Lady Claredon is first shown in distress. An ethereal image dressed in white, visible only to the male protagonist, she is one of the two dead  and “weak” women in this tale, the two most blatant “angel” characters. She upholds the “ideal” when it comes to confining stereotypes for women in fiction. She was pleasant, passive, and stayed in her place. From the gossiping female servants, the reader learns she longed for a child. Michael later learns she was in fact, with child. She’s maternal, she’s respected, and she’s a victim.

Miss Charlotte: Now enters the Angel’s polar opposite, the Monster. It is interesting that Michael often notes her smile and describes her as “the most beautiful woman I had ever seen until that moment or since” seeing as how he will later be haunted by her face and her eyes for a lifetime (40-41).  But typical of the female monster persona, she can create deceiving false appearances.  Or perhaps, Charlotte’s initial characterization plays off of the clichéd myths that beautiful woman can not only not be trusted, but are also brainless and frivolous. This is most notably suggested in the dinner scene where she prattles on over what the men would deem trivial topics of dance and fashion.
Nods towards Charlotte’s darker nature surface in the descriptions of her appearance. Her hair hangs in “black ringlets” (40).  In contrast to Lady Claredon’s transparent white gown, Miss Charlotte is often clothed in heavier, dark fabric. There is the green velvet dress and green (possibly emerald) ring suggesting envy, and later she’s adorned in black when her evil nature is revealed.
 “‘What kind of monster are you?’”(188).
At this pinnacle point of the tale, Charlotte’s encasement in the Monster role is complete with her decent into the madwoman in the tower act. She not only is evil, she spawns it, responsible for the menacing spirit in the house.  The reasoning offered? Nothing more than she abhors weakness, easily translated into despise for her polar opposite, the Angel, Lady Claredon.  

Edith and Mrs. Guston: Both servants in the house in subordinate roles, neither Edith nor Mrs. Guston are entrusted with the truth when the men unveil the mystery and defeat the Monster.

The Girl I Met and Loved:  This one doesn’t even get a first or last name, referred to only by the role she played in Michael’s adult life.  “She took her leave of me” though he notes (205). Angel or Monster, it’s not clear, her character is identified as important to him but utterly lacking. She remains simply another woman who abandoned and possibly haunts him.

How do the male characters fair under examination?

The male characters of Michael Vyner, his father, Tristan Jerwood, Hodges, and even Clarence the dog—all play hero roles. Michael’s father saves Sir Stephen Claredon. Michael attempts to save him in the climatic confrontation scene. Hodges, along with Clarence the dog, save Michael in the freezing marsh. Jerwood and Hodges rescue Michael in the burning tower. Hodges, Sir Stephen, and Jerwood all attempted to save Lady Claredon from the frozen water, but fail. Likewise with Charlotte in the tower. The message is clear. The men are survivors and heroes, the women damsels in distress, victims, and victimizes.

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