First published in 1961 The Winter City was Mary Hocking’s first novel. This will be one of the novels available from Bello books at the end of February.
Set in an unnamed Iron Curtain country the action taking place in the week leading up to the outbreak of revolution against the communist government. As I have come to expect from Mary Hocking this novel – like those she wrote later – is very much rooted in time and place. The atmosphere of a grey, bitter chill with a gradually rising tension among the British and foreign community living in the capital city, those attached to the embassy and the journalists who are meant to be reporting on the situation for their newspapers.
“On the east side of the river, narrow cobbled streets ran up towards the centre of the city. It was still, as though the pulse of the city had been crushed. Scraps of washing hanging along the stone walls were hard as iron, and a jagged crust of ice stood out like broken glass around the rim of a pump. In Government Square, the flag above the City Hall was furled in stiff folds, and along the broad avenues the trees stood stark and brittle, rigid in the grip of a frost that had killed their roots.”
Thirty five year old widow Helen Jenner works alongside and shares a flat with twenty year old Canadian Kate Blanchard. Kate has become infatuated with Doyle Lawrence, an Irish Journalist. Doyle is secretive, unreliable and irresponsible, boastful of past adventures, hard drinking; he doesn’t appear to be writing much at the moment. Having become secretly involved with the revolutionary movement – he has been indiscreet enough to hint at his activities to Kate. Helen has concerns – as she sees Kate skipping happily around their apartment trying to squeeze herself into a sophisticated black dress to impress Doyle, she tentatively tries to warn the younger girl. Doyle meanwhile is making late night visits to a farmhouse, where revolutionaries Karel and his wife live.
Paul Daniels; another journalist has been drawing closer to Helen; he is a friend of Doyle’s though someone far more responsible, carefully watching the hourly changing situation. Paul knew the country years earlier, since when he has studied it, written about it and now is anxious to help – in whichever way he can.
“ ’But what can you do? Already her control was beginning to slip. ‘What can any of us do? We are helpless surely?’
‘But doesn’t the man who stands by, equally helpless, at a lynching make the same plea? Yet he still cannot escape the consequence, which is that his own freedom has been impaired.’
‘But that is something which happens in his own country, among his own people,’ she cried. ‘This is not your country, you have no responsibility here,’
‘No, No, no!’ They were shouting at one another now. ‘It’s not as simple as that. I am, after all, of the human race and I can’t stand by and watch a major convulsion without being touched, simply shrugging my shoulders and saying “It’s all very sad, but I am not responsible.” You ask me why I am moved by events here; but what astonishes me is that anyone should be unmoved.’ “
Lady Rosamund Hilton her husband Sir Edward and Marshall Pickard are three of the key figures of the foreign community, along with Jean Dulac a French journalist and Dr. Van Hals – who lives in the apartment above Helen and Kate. Pickard idolises Lady Hilton, she a graceful English beauty, married to a man she doesn’t love. In the past Rosamund had an affair with Doyle, it’s the worst kept secret in the city. Kate’s youthful certainty doesn’t see Rosamund as a threat – more as ancient history – but perhaps all is not entirely over between them. As much as he adores Rosamund, Pickard despises Doyle, and so when he witnesses a tender moment between the two, Pickard can’t help but want his revenge.
Over the course of the week the political situation worsens, revolution is in the air – and on the street corners and in the cafes people whisper the name Matthias. When revolution finally comes to the city – both Paul and Doyle drawing on what courage they have, must make some difficult decisions.
Mary Hocking concerns herself with those age old conflicts between our personal responsibility to others in our lives – and concerns and responsibilities for wider, social issues. As always Mary Hocking portrays complexities and fragilities in human relationships which exist for people, no matter what wider circumstances they find themselves in.