This is the short story you wish you’d written if you were a writer who allowed herself a broader swathe of cruelty over her reader. That’s the prevailing thought I’ve cultivated from multiple readings of “Winter Break”, a quick cigarette’s length of a read to which I know I shall return, to have my heart bruised, bewildered and grudgingly made envious, all over again.
A British couple, growing semi-stolidly, predictably into their middle age, endures an uncomfortable journey to their vacation resort, chauffeured by a distinctly disagreeable driver. As their taxi rattles unceremoniously over pockmarked roads, subject to sudden, miniature avalanches of earth clods from the mountain slopes that frame their travel, the wife muses about the alternate plans she’s quietly, without apparent bitterness, curated in her secret heart, despite her repeated renunciations of them, prompted by her husband, Phil. It is through her eyes that this seemingly lukewarm hotel odyssey unfolds, through her sole perspective that the journey to the hotel resort begins and ends.
This linear, single-voiced narration seems to work best in most short fiction; “Winter Break” is no exception. The unnamed wife (leaving her nameless adds a layer of cleanliness, somehow, giving us the right to apportion her any name we choose, or no name at all; there is something surgically precise about an unnamed protagonist, is there not?) is satisfyingly complex. Her in-transit thoughts are as scattered, easily jolted as the ride to the Royal Athena Sun itself. In the time it takes for them to manoeuvre their way from the disconcertingly humid airport lounge, to the terracotta-tiled hotel entrance, we are able to glean the impression of the full life of her marriage to Phil, to acknowledge it as its own chafing, unevenly impressioned identity.
Indeed, the marriage could be said to be a character within its own right. The weight of it seems to occupy as much room in the backseat of the taxi as either of the marriage partners. There is a distressing heft to all the concessions our narrator has made to Phil during the tenure of their union, the most apparent being the latter’s overt reluctance to procreate. The way in which Mantel articulates Phil’s passive-aggressive manipulation of his wife’s own will in the matter is exquisitely executed:
“Once, a year or two into their marriage, he had confessed to her that he found the presence of small children unbearably agitating …
He nodded miserably. “A lifetime of that,” he said. “It would get to you. It would feel like a lifetime.”
Anyway, it was becoming academic now. She had reached that stage in her fertile life when genetic strings got knotted and chromosomes went whizzing around and reattaching themselves. “Trisomies,” he said. “Syndromes. Metabolic deficiencies. I wouldn’t put you through that.”
Anyone who’s been in a relationship in which their partner has wielded subtle or overt pressure over their choices can attest to the curious emotional miasma that emerges at the hands of this studied, almost sympathetic negation of their own autonomy. It rankles just as much as it bemuses, making one wonder at intervals (as our narrator no doubt wonders) just how much one wanted what one claimed to, in the first place.
Most short fiction pieces seem to save their visceral pull for the very end; few do it as blindingly well as this one. Without giving too much away, this is what I mean by enviously enforced writerly cruelty. Mantel drives us through a landscape that we discern to be well-plotted but not particularly hair-raising, then sends us careening off an unforeseen cliff without so much as a backward glance—and this is the very best way in which the story could have ended, arguably. If anyone can conjure up a superior ending, once they’ve read the original, I would be thrilled to hear about it. It transforms what would have been a very fine story into something fictively exceptional, and if the price of that is a perpetually unanswered cache of questions, so much the better, no?
Too many short stories are caulked with excessive kindness; they could stand to be improved by some authorial amorality. “Winter Break” is a concise case study in witnessing, simultaneously, far too little, and far too much, for one’s own good. If I taught a course in short fiction writing, it’s the kind of story I’d distribute to my students, saying, “Discuss this. Tell me about human kindness, or the distinct lack thereof, about the tricks we make our minds play, and the times we wish we could trick ourselves out of seeing what we’ve seen.”
You can read “Winter Break” by Hilary Mantel here. (The Guardian)
This Sunday, Ellen, the creator of the Story Sundays feature, shares her thoughts on “This Is All the Orientation You Are Gonna Get” by John Jodzio. You can read her post at her blog, Fat Books and Thin Women, here.
Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation for this undervalued fiction form. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine. Want to start up Story Sundays on your blog? Yay! Email story.sundaysATgmail.com for details.