:: Article

Winter Under Water


Winter Under Water, James Hopkin, Picador, 2007

The truest love stories are those which deal with the role of silence in relationships, the emotions that are communicated on every level aside from the verbal. In James Hopkin’s debut novel, it is this silence which hangs over the narrative in an alternately elegant and oppressive manner.

Winter Under Water charts the largely unremarkable relationship between Joseph, a lonely wanderer, and Marta, a married mother and biographer of exceptional female lives. While Joseph finds himself acquiescing to a limited number empty sexual experiences with meaningless women, Marta devotes herself to an agonising battle of maternal responsibility and her feelings for Joseph.

Hopkin clearly has a great deal of potential, particularly in his confident use of fluid, ethereal language. His prose is coolly poetic without ever losing the irrepressible warmth of a hopeless romantic. The scenes of longing which follow Joseph along his journey towards a life with Marta are punctuated by the letters she writes to him, charting the breakdown of her marriage with a voice that is both lively and touched with melancholy. This is, in short, the perfect template for a delicate and intelligent love story – but sadly, proves to be nothing more than that.

As a love story Winter Under Water ticks all the right boxes but it never quite feels compelling enough, or heartbreaking enough. By the end of the novel, it is difficult to feel genuinely affected by the illicit and free-running emotions that dictate the lives of Marta and Joseph. This is partly because of the lack of action in the novel; it is a story of longing, but little else. One is loath to feel sympathetic towards either of the main characters: Joseph is the lonely anti-hero mired in sorrow as he intrudes upon Marta’s marriage, whereas Marta herself is a strangely fleeting element in the novel. Reading her letters, we have a sense of the bittersweet homelife that Joseph can never be part of, but her character is never fully fleshed-out, which feels like a wasted opportunity on Hopkin’s part. Likewise, the various women whose lives she is researching offer an extremely promising device that ultimately fails to deliver. To give these women, who clearly haunt Marta’s troubled existence, such a minimal role in the novel gives the impression of an incomplete and unfulfilled story.

One feels, in short, that Hopkin is still to find his true narrative voice, although it is fair to say that he is very close to doing so. Similarities to the works of Milan Kundera are conspicuous at best and entirely derivative at worst, but overall simply operate as a distraction from the novel’s genuinely impressive moments of originality and freshness.

It is a pity to note that Hopkin harbours a talent that could go far beyond the creative limits of this novel, particularly as it is clearly in possession of a number of inventive and potentially fruitful themes. As a study of the difference between togetherness and solitude, between language and silence, Winter Under Water subtly hits upon a number of truths which are at once comforting and startling. There is something surrounding this book approaching beauty, but one feels that it is still in a stage of chrysalis. There is no doubt that Hopkin is yet to emerge as a confident and accomplished writer, but this is novel that merely hints at a notable literary talent.

Charlotte Stretch lives in Brixton where she is a freelance writer. She is currently working on her first novel.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 25th, 2007.