Summary (from the publisher): It’s January 1998, and the author is returning “home” after a ten-year absence to a Maine winter that’s even more brutal than usual. His mother, Jennie, is dying of cancer; she is well cared for, but unable to speak. Needing support, Wayne calls on his longtime partner, Ralph, who heads northeast for his first exposure to the Maine cold. It’s also his first brush with Wayne’s family, including a feisty aunt and an emotionally distant brother. The contrast between a nurturing gay relationship and dysfunctional family bonds is as sharp as the wind sweeping in from the sea. Leavened with humor, A Report from Winter weaves childhood memories with the harsh realities of a family life that’s short on love. The memoir is a tribute to hard-won relationships in an uncaring world.
My Review: There’s a freedom to reviewing a memoir that one seldom gets when reviewing fiction. On one hand, both narrative fiction and memoir can be held to the same standard when it comes to fluidity of prose, voice and style. On the other hand, one can’t apply the same standard when it comes to character arcs or “plot,” because in memoir, the author doesn’t have the luxury of instructing the characters to grow and change, to do his bidding. These are real people being depicted here; not fictional constructs, and as we all know, real life is seldom as neat and tidy as the fictional world. Some people don’t grow and change. Some moments aren’t satisfying, all wrapped up in a little bow or a happily-ever-after, and rose colored glasses don’t always work. So how does one go about reviewing a memoir?
For me, I have to look at it from two perspectives: does the author have a narrative style that draws the reader in, wraps him or her up in the lives he/she is spying in on, and does the writer strike emotional resonance with the reader, a universality in which a reader–no matter their orientation–can see him or herself? On both of these fronts, author Wayne Courtois excels in just about every way.
A Report from Winter is an introspective memoir, the author returning home to Maine and hints of a childhood that was hardly warm and inviting. As such, much of the narrative takes place in the narrator’s head, his observations and emotional reactions to a place and a feeling he’d long left behind taking center stage. He’s returning for the death of a parent, one of the quintessential defining moments in any adult’s life. It is that moment when childhood disappears forever, and Courtois captures with amazing clarity all the emotions that run though a person when they face this massive change.
Courtois’ voice and prose are wonderfully accessible, drawing the reader in with an easy style that has warmth and subtle humor. This is counterbalanced sharply by his attention to detail when it comes to creating for his readers the cold, harsh winter about him, a metaphor for the brittle childhood he experienced, one nearly devoid of love and the heart one wants every child to experience. The author’s use of limited flashbacks combined with his attention to detail with respect to the winter setting gives you the perfect picture of what life might have been like for the author while growing up, and he does this wonderfully, never resorting to a litany of who did what to whom. He gives us the broad strokes and anyone who has ever dealt with the passing of an emotionally distant parent will understand and feel every moment of that childhood, even though it may be very different than their own.
And yet, Courtois gives us glimmers of the love trying to break through that emotional permafrost of his family. They are brief, and perhaps they are only the longing perspective of a child grasping ant anything that could be taken for affection, but they are emotionally powerful glimpses.
Likewise, Courtois manages to paint pictures of his family with perfectly tuned phrases that tell us more about those people than long scenes of domestic drama ever could. This is especially important when you are dealing with people who are no longer with us in the traditional narrative sense. Though the author’s father is not really a central “character” as the memoir unfold, Courtois lets us know exactly who he was in a refreshingly spare way: My father didn’t say anything. He secretly disliked Louise, but it was the kind of secret you could practically trip over. And when it comes to the author’s mother, Jennie, who is bedridden and unable to speak, Courtois also paints a vivid picture. Yes, there was my mother, carrying on in a low voice, spitting out grudges like watermelon seeds.
Despite all this, we feel the author’s need to find something positive in his family, the desire for closure and approval as a major chapter of his life ends. Courtois captures the mixed emotions of such a time: the bitterness from holding on to a past, the longing for closure, the guilt for staying away so long, the claustrophobia of remembering why you left in the first place. It is here the memoir excel the most, crossing wonderfully from the story of one man’s family, into a universal story that has emotional depth and resonance.
If there is one qualm I have with the book is that while the POV remaining entrenched in the author’s thoughts works brilliantly when addressing the past and family, I did long for it to open up a bit when the author’s partner, Ralph, arrives on the scene. I wanted the introspection to ease a bit so that I could get to know who Ralph was, especially in relation to the author. We certainly get close to that at times. The chapter where the author recounts their first date is wonderfully truthful, hope and potential love peeking out. It also has a light humor to it that really makes you want to know these two people as a couple. But while we see glimpses of it, I never really felt that I knew Ralph and never quite saw exactly what he brought into the author’s life. I certainly know what I have been told by the author, but because the narrative remains entrenched in introspection, I never get shown who they are together. And I wanted to see that, feel the spring that Ralph brought into the author’s life.
But in the end, Courtois has taken a piece of his life, let us glimpse in, and built a world that is full and truthful, one that will feel familiar to many. With humor, wit and sharp prose, he builds a family, dissects it and holds it up for examination. He never gilds the lily and the result is an honesty that has depth and resonance for the reader. Does he tie it up in rosy endings? No. But he doesn’t need to. Life can be messy and feel unresolved at times, because, as author Courtois shows us, you really can’t go home again…but sometimes that is not a bad thing.