Winter Flowers, by Angélique Villeneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter), is a thoughtful meditation on the struggles of the families of soldiers left behind in Paris towards the end of the First World War.
The story focuses on Jeanne Caillett, a talented maker of artificial flowers, who lives in a small apartment with her young daughter Léonie. Jeanne’s husband, Touissant, was called up, but for the last few years he has been in a Paris hospital, recovering from a shrapnel explosion which has decimated his face. Jeanne has only heard from him once since he has returned from the War, and that was a note he sent, in which he told her not to visit him.
As the novella opens, Touissant makes a surprise return to his family. Joy soon gives way to misgiving as Jeanne realises that her husband is now a stranger, wearing a mask on his face to hide his injuries, and keeping silent to mask his emotions. Léonie struggles to understand who this man who claims to be her father is, her whole idea of her father being encapsulated by a photo of him on the mantelpiece. With three mouths to feed, it becomes harder to make food and fuel last, and Jeanne finds herself working harder than ever to support her family. Despite her bet efforts, Jeanne cannot get Touissant to open up to her, and his much longed for return seems to have made her life more difficult, not less.
She doesn’t think, He’s here, she thinks, it’s here. This unknown thing that’s coming home to her. That she’s dreaded, and longed for. It’s here. It’s going to come in, it’s going to make its life with her, and with Léo too, it will come here, into this room that the two of them have shared
Winter Flowers is a quietly powerful book that explores loss and grief in all its myriad forms. The daily difficulty of Jeanne’s life is laid bare, in stark contrast to the beauty of the flowers she creates. There is hunger and cold, Spanish Flu is a constant threat and the authorities do little for those left behind. In Touissant’s absence, Jeanne banded together with her female neighbours to support one another both physically and mentally, but her husband’s return means she finds it harder to help her best friend Sidonie, whose grief is making her spin out of control.
The depiction of female friendship is a striking one, honouring the strength and resilience of the women who were left behind. A scene where Jeanne and Sidonie attend a ceremony to commemorate those who were killed in the war is a powerful and heart-rending one, reminding us that there is only so much loss a person, or a country can bear.
Like all women whose husbands or sons had been mobilised, though, she’d heard countless stories about men’s homecomings. Poor women. Those who entrusted a sheep to their country were given back a lion. Someone who’d sent out a young lad was said to have come home an old man, or mad.
And there were so many, Jeanne was well aware, who would never come home at all.
Villeneuve writes with an ease and grace and the story flows smoothly between the present, where peace is imminent and the past, when war was beginning. No one time seems to be better than the other and Jeanne is wracked with guilt about her feelings towards her husband’s return. She knows she should be happy, she knows that others have not been so lucky, but Touissant is not the man he once was and she is also a different woman. Her loss may not be a physical one, but it is a loss all the same and Villeneuve asks, with great empathy, how we measure what was lost, in terms of an ordinary life, and how do we move on from something so monumental.
Winter Flowers is a devastating and profound book, shot through with small moments of beauty and joy, and celebrating the small steps that need to be taken to forge a new life after tragedy. The book subtly depicts the pressing burden of war, not just on those who were fighting in it, but on the women left behind, fighting their own battles against hunger, poverty, illness and distress.
By chance, I finished Winter Flowers on 11 November, Remembrance Day, the day on which the book closes and was moved by this beautifully rendered depiction of steadfast perseverance and hope against all odds.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!