DeeBrief review: The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

This is foremost a ghost story, a chilling tale about loved ones who have died—but maybe not permanently. McMahon excels in creating taut situations set against the spooky backdrop of unforgiving east coast mountains and forests

The Winter People

“‘Because you are the closest I will ever come to a child of my own, the secret will go to you. I will write it all down, everything I know about sleepers. I will fold up the papers, put them in an envelope, and seal it with wax. You will hide it away, and one day, when you are ready, you will open it up.’
‘How will I know I am ready?’ I asked.
She smiled, showing her small teeth, pointed like a fox’s and stained brown from tobacco. ‘You will know.'”

– The Winter People, Jennifer McMahon

Today I’m introducing my blog’s second new feature of the year: DeeBrief reviews. I review far fewer books than I read, often because of time constraints, job, life, having finished too many books at once, or simply not having quite as much to say about a particular title. Often books that I would love to recommend or discuss with you get left in the dust. DeeBrief reviews will be concise snapshots, running about 500 words in length (my regular book reviews are usually 1000-1500 words). Hope you enjoy this new feature! It’ll certainly let me get to more books on my blog.

Something’s going on in the woods outside West Hall, Virginia. The sleepy little town is home to more than just a charming farmers’ market and a quirky history. What really happened to Sara Harrison Shea, whose body was found skinned alive after the death of her only child in 1908? And in the present, where has Ruth and Fawn’s mother gone? In Jennifer McMahon’s atmospheric ghost story The Winter People, three women across a century will discover the truth about “sleepers” as they search for missing loved ones.

This is foremost a ghost story, a chilling tale about loved ones who have died—but maybe not permanently. McMahon excels in creating taut situations set against the spooky backdrop of unforgiving east coast mountains and forests. We see glimpses of the “sleepers” or “winter people,” the dead who have supposedly been brought back to life through ancient knowledge passed down from mother to daughter. The narrative hinges on an old farmhouse, inhabited in 1908 by the Sheas and in the present by teenaged Ruthie and her little sister Fawn. In 1908, Sara Harrison Shea, a grieving mother who has a touch of the psychic, and who will do anything to bring back her young daughter Gertie after a terrible accident. Sara’s body is found gruesomely murdered and she fades into a local legend, occasionally linked to the odd hiker who goes missing over the years. In the present, Ruthie and Fawn’s mother disappears, and as they frantically search for her, they discover that they live in Sara Harrison Shea’s house, and that the house contains many secrets.

Can the dead really be brought back? If so, can they really be the same as they were before death? Where has Ruthie’s mother gone, and does her disappearance have anything to do with the missing hikers? The narrative is at its most compelling in the Sara Harrison Shea parts of the story. McMahon’s writing style is more suited to the historical than the contemporary, her tone more formal and giving everything a chilly, distant feeling. As we peer beyond the curtain and see what’s peering back at us, I guarantee your skin will tingle in terrified anticipation. The present story, while interesting, fares less well, with the characters feeling a bit wooden, and the denouement veering closer to silly than scary.

Still, this is a quick, tense read with wonderfully gothic elements. I finished it late in the night visiting family in the country. Just after I closed the book, the lights, which were on an automatic timer, all snapped off. And I screamed, just a little bit! An excellent blend of suspense and psychological fear with viscerally terrifying monsters, The Winter People makes for a great campfire ghost story.

Four out of five blue pencils

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon, published in Canada by Doubleday, © 2014

Available at AmazonIndigo, and at fine independent bookstores everywhere via Indiebound.

Book provided to me by Doubleday Canada in exchange for a fair review.


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