I didn’t read this one particularly quickly, but I kept going back to it, a slow immersion of a reading experience. The reviews on Goodreads are pretty divided, and I can see why – it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea – but the things that make it anathema to some are catnip to others.
Not sure if there are many spoilers ahead? Probably not many? And not big ones that would spoil the reading anyway. It’s not the bare plot that makes the book.
Elise, the protagonist, is a painfully shy woman trying to keep her head down and get through life as unnoticed as possible. She’s surrounded by strong, colourful characters, and her whole life is spent in the shadow of one or other of them, from her rebellious older sister Frances as a child, to her eccentric, emotionally abusive mother, to her dodgy colleague boyfriend Martin who seems to look for submissiveness in a partner above all else. The larger shadow over her, complicating everything, is the unresolved disappearance of Frances as a child, which both colours everything in Elise’s life and relationships (even if it mostly manifests as the absence of Frances’s absence from those relationships), and draws more attention to her. She will always be Frances’s sister. Maybe she would have anyway, but much more so now, and worse.
The family dynamics are expertly sketched, and the characters well-drawn and relatable – or at least very imaginable, very real. Dorothy, Frances’ and Elise’s mother, is particularly vivid – her faded lies of glory, her delusions barely disguising what she really was, her flaws as a mother set against the tragedies she suffered. Does one justify the other? She’s sinned against and sinning against all at the same time. The power she exerts over Elise during Elise’s childhood is terror and unpredictability, and the power she exerts over Elise when Elise is an adult is her helplessness.
Elise seems a little helpless too; her shyness makes human interaction frustrating, as her quiet voice is overlooked, and the strong characters she is surrounded by insist on finishing her sentences and dictating her opinions. Martin in particular is bad for this, and against him Elise’s only weapon is her silence.
Locked as we are in Elise’s head, Closed For Winter can be claustrophobic and repetitive, circling around and around as she has remembered the day Frances went missing over and over again, looking for a clue. And it isn’t just her thoughts that are repetitive; Blain evokes the repetitiveness of life in a small working class/suburban seaside town (Closed For Winter is set in Australia, which is not a setting I read enough of – I had to look up what pigface was, for example), where people repeat the same actions day after day, and life after life, with sons growing up to take their fathers’ places in their fathers’ shops.
It works though, the repetition, tracing deeper and deeper grooves each time so you get a little more of the picture. And it gives the right perspective by which to view the small steps out of the circle that Elise begins to take. In the end, what has changed? Nothing – she has the same job, her mother continues her dense, futile daily routines clipping newspaper articles that resonate with her experience, Frances’ fate remains unknown. But also everything – Elise plants her garden and brings her mother outside the house, gives her something else to take care of and be responsible for; she leaves Martin, she moves in with her colleague Jocelyn (another strong character and the only one who shows Elise the patience and understanding she needs and deserves) instead of back in with her mother, she learns the answers to some old personal mysteries after daring to look them in the face. John Mills the doctor-neighbour-carer finishes his mosaic. Marissa the idolised artist loses her shine.
There are lots of little things I noticed, little signs or metaphors, but I’d just be making lists if I mentioned all of them, so I’ll leave them to be discovered by the next reader instead.
Closed for winter everything may be, but the spring is finally coming at the end of the novel. Things are beginning to unfurl from their tight circles.