The first time I read Patricia McKillip, I didn’t get very far. The book was the Riddlemaster of Hed, and I was completely unprepared for her complex use of language. But there must have been something in her style that intrigued me, because I tracked down Winter Rose not long afterwards, and since then have been a big fan of all her work. Out of all Patricia McKillip’s books (at least the ones I’ve read) Winter Rose is perhaps the most opaque. McKillip’s language has always been eloquent and atmospheric, often obscuring both plot and characterization, but in this case the plot itself is also rather vague and ambiguous. Based on the ballad of Tam Lin, this is a dreamy and mysterious tale of family secrets, unrequited love and the allure of faerie.
At the risk of making this book sound boring, there is little in the way of plot in Winter Rose. Moving in and out of the domestic circle and what may or may not be lucid dreams, the unprepared reader might be surprised at how little action there is. Instead, Winter Rose is a mystery that must be unfurled — not just in the understanding of the central figure in the story (the stranger on his buttermilk horse), but in the protagonist’s understanding of her own being.
Rois and Laurel Melior are sisters, and yet complete opposites. Whereas fair-headed Laurel is beautiful, sensible, kind-hearted and thoroughly domesticated, younger sister Rois is wild and free-spirited, liable to wander in the woods for hours at a time. They live with their father in a humble farmhouse, but while Laurel is engaged to marry her childhood sweetheart, Rois has no interest whatsoever in affairs of the heart. That is, until the day Corbet Lynn steps out of the shadows in order to reclaim his ancestral home and restore it to its former glory.
Right from the start Corbet causes a stir among the village. There are rumours and whispers surrounding his lineage: that Corbet’s father killed his grandfather, and that with his dying breath Nial Lynn cursed all future generations. Of course, what exactly this curse entails changes from storyteller to storyteller, but Rois can sense that there is more to the enigmatic Corbet than what he lets on in casual conversation. Though he seems to be a benevolent figure, his presence among them is soon causing trouble. Capturing the hearts of both sisters, Laurel begins to waste away (as did the girls’ mother long ago) whilst Rois is drawn into his dangerous fey-like world in which a dangerous queen holds sway.
Touchingly, the bond between the sisters is never sacrificed, even when both are aware of each other’s feelings for Corbet. Rois proves herself a pure and selfless heroine when she takes measures to save Corbet — partly for the sake of her sister’s life, and with full knowledge that in doing so, she might not win his love in return.
As always, McKillip’s style is filled with dense imagery and symbolism, perhaps more so in Winter Rose than in any other of her novels. Her creation of winter is particularly evocative: I think it will make you feel a little chilly even when reading it on the warmest summer day! But as I said, the plot of this story is borderline-incomprehensible. Rois travels in and out of dreams and hallucinations, and is never quite sure what is real and what isn’t. Come the conclusion, neither is the reader. For the record, this is not a bad thing. I have no doubt that it was in fact McKillip’s intention, and the mystery that it creates (in keeping with the theme of secrets and illusions) makes it thought-provoking as opposed to frustrating. At least, it did for me, and what with such dreamy prose throughout, it would be rather foolish to expect anything other than an ambiguous ending.
One minor pet peeve of mine was the name “Rois.” Given the emphasis on roses throughout the story, I assumed that the name of the main character was meant to be pronounced “rose.” But the odd spelling meant that I kept hearing it as “Royce,” rhymes with “Joyce.” After a while, it kinda got on my nerves. Couldn’t the girl just be called “Rose”?
But that’s (obviously) very minor. On the whole, this is one of McKillip’s most successful novels — full of magic and mystery. Certainly not for everyone, but those who take the time to read it thoughtfully — and perhaps even more than once — will be amply rewarded.
OK, I admit it, I’ll read anything based on “Tam Lin.” There are at least four novels I know of that are based on that old story, and each has its good points. Pope’s The Perilous Gardis the best-plotted; Diana Wynne Jones‘ Fire and Hemlock has the most sympathetic characters; Pamela Dean‘s Tam Lin is the funniest. And this one, Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose, does the most amazing job of making the faery world real.
In this beautifully poetic novel, wild Rois and her quiet sister Laurel both fall in love with a newcomer to town, Corbet Lynn, heir to a ruined castle, his grandfather’s curse, and lots of unanswered questions. He longs for the stability he believes Laurel can give him, but at the same time he knows that only Rois will be able to solve the mystery of his past and help him find his future. When Corbet vanishes in the dead of winter, and Laurel pines away for him, Rois journeys deep into the wood, and deep into a gorgeous but frightening dream world, to find out how she can save her sister and her friend. McKillip’s prose is magical and poetic, and we are left wondering what is dream and what is real, even as we shut the back cover.
Haunting and beautiful.