Fresh off last year’s unheralded and fantastic collection of stories, If a Stranger Approaches You, Laura Kasischke returns with her ninth novel, the psychologically suspenseful Mind of Winter. It’s the sort of book that culminates with a finale that will have readers scrambling back through the pages, reliving the maddening Christmas day Kasischke puts her protagonist through.
Holly Judge, the exasperated mother at the center of Mind of Winter, awakes late Christmas morning much to the chagrin of her adopted daughter, Tatiana, and after Holly’s husband, Eric, rushes out to retrieve his parents at the airport, she and Tatiana appear to spend the day in isolation as a mounting blizzard prevents any friends or family from attending Christmas dinner. The claustrophobia sets in early for Holly, and for the duration of novel, readers are treated to her and Tatiana’s interactions as the snow piles up outside and the story of Tatty’s adoption leads to a chilling and unexpected conclusion. While some readers might get lost in the supposed humdrum of the day, Kasischke actually pulls off something quite impressive with Mind of Winter; she’s written a literary thriller that creeps to the edges of realism and engages in stereotypical characteristics of horror and mystery genres. The results should make for a satisfying read for booklovers in search of a novel both emotionally challenging and narratively enriching.
The tension Kasischke creates throughout the novel begins on the first page, as Holly, fighting the urge to return to sleep rather than awake, has the continual thought that “Something had followed them home from Russia.” That something appears to be Tatiana, adopted from the Pokrovka Orphanage #2 thirteen years before, and given Tatiana’s unusual behavior throughout the novel (constantly changing dresses, taking long naps, acting contrary to Holly’s every directive), readers are certain to suspect something is off with Tatiana. And while Holly’s beloved Tatty certainly raises some question marks, Holly herself seems to be suffering from stress related to being trapped inside her house as a winter storm rages outdoors. Yet as the novel progresses, readers will recognize that the more pressing, fascinating storm is actually taking place indoors, primarily in the mind of Holly.
What readers learn of Holly is that much of her immediate family suffered from complications brought upon by breast cancer, and those who weren’t swept away by the disease chose to end their lives prematurely. Holly herself, as a young woman, opts for a double mastectomy and oophorectomy, leaving adoption as her only hope of becoming a mother. An aspiring poet, Holly initially thought she’d find solace in her art, but what she ultimately discovers is the need to be a mother. Told through flashbacks, these glimpses of Holly reveal a confused and sometimes erratic young woman. As the present storyline develops and Christmas day seems less and less important as claustrophobia settles in, these past snapshots of Holly go a long way toward informing readers of the type of person Holly is. Her observations become more and more unreliable, and her interactions with Tatiana take on an unrealistic quality. As Mind of Winter reaches its third act, the unsettling feeling lurking in the early sections takes control of Kasischke’s narrative, and there’s a suddenly disorienting mood that dominates the conclusion.
Of this conclusion, one can only say that it most likely will surprise readers, and in doing so, some readers will inevitably be turned off by the book and Kasischke’s rollercoaster ride of an ending. But such a reaction would disregard what’s taken place over the course of the entire novel. Channeling the likes of Virginia Woolf and Joyce Carol Oates in terms of narrative point of view and the creation of a disconcerting mood, Kasischke does her best work in carefully laying clues throughout Mind of Winter that should be evident to only the most astute of readers. For everyone else, there’s the opportunity to return to the early pages and once again sink into the feeling of Christmas morning, complete with the thawing, bloody roast in the refrigerator and the gnawing suspicion that despite the festive holiday, something is not quite right.