I recently finished reading ‘Paraffin Winter’, a novel written by Peter Chowney who I knew for over a year in Second Life and whose reading of excerpts therein whetted my appetite for the complete novel. Since I drone on about leaving feedback for indie authors a lot (see more droning about that issue here) I thought it was time to lead by example. Here is my review.
Last year, I read 11/22/63, a novel by Stephen King about a teacher who goes back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination. One of the things that stuck in my mind about that book was King’s observation that the very first thing a time traveller would actually notice about visiting that period was the smell. Nostalgia, one of the most potent influences on public (and, therefore, political) opinion, often overlooks such unpleasant sensory artefacts of everyday life in ‘the good old days’. Nobody begrudges anyone the warm glow of nostalgia if it makes them happy, but sometimes failing to remember some of the not-so-nice aspects of the way things were can render invisible some of the more nice aspects of the way things are today.
Paraffin Winter is set in Poole in the winter of 1963 and, if you start this novel in a state of ignorance about either Poole, life in the early 60s or, specifically, the bitter, endless, relentless winter of ’63 (the coldest of the twentieth century in the UK), you will emerge at its ending feeling like you lived through it all personally. Painting a sensory landscape with words is a skill I freely acknowledge to be a shortcoming of my own ability as a writer, but it is a skill that Chowney drenches this story in. Long after I have forgotten the plot details of the novel, I will recall the sense of coldness and of the grimy residue left by people’s attempts to warm themselves through this extraordinary winter. The coal smoke; the weekly baths; the empty bottles of Double Diamond lined up alongside Ronnie Delaney’s chair as he nods off in front of a dying fire in the hearth: these and an endless supply of other period details make Paraffin Winter an incredibly immersive experience.
The plot follows first Ronnie and then his girlfriend Jenny through a complicated tangle of events that start with the discovery of a human eyeball during Ronnie’s first post-Christmas 1962 paraffin round. Through the first half of the book, other body parts are discovered and, slowly, the story of a murder emerges. It’s a complicated tale that draws on key political and technological events of the period, all meticulously researched. Paraffin Winter is a novel of many layers, but perhaps the most prominent of these is the issue of social class. This is given particular focus in the second half when Jenny, the daughter of a communist railwayman, has to join forces with Veronica, the wife of a wealthy timber importer, to prove Ronnie’s innocence of the murder. Jenny and Veronica make a surprisingly good team, but rather than sugar-coating this alliance with the over-used gloss of isn’t-it-funny-how-all-people-are-essentially-the-same, Chowney uses it to highlight some of the insurmountable differences in perspective between these two positions. Jenny’s hopes for the future would have made this an optimistic novel had it actually been written in 1963; as it is, the benefit of hindsight from the position of today – where the gap between the world’s richest and poorest is larger than it’s ever been – make it a snapshot of the sad naivety of the post-war period. It’s a point underlined by Veronica’s final action to protect her husband and her way of life.
To be honest, the coming together of all the loose ends in the end did feel a little contrived to me (Catfish Collins’ apparent daily commutes from London to Poole just to keep an eye on Jenny in particular felt rather unlikely). It’s hardly the first time I’ve felt that way about a novel’s resolution, however, and this slight visibility of plot engineering actually did very little to detract from my enjoyment of a book that is ultimately about the qualitative experience of a time and place. If ‘time travel’ wasn’t a category of science-fiction but, instead, a genre of period fiction characterised by such vivid descriptions that you finish it feeling you should be unpacking a messy suitcase, Paraffin Winter would surely be a flagship title for 1963.
Paraffin Winter can be bought in PDF, ePub and Mobi (Kindle) formats from www.paraffinwinter.org.uk, where you’ll find a website packed with detailed background information to the period portrayed for your further reading. It’s also available from Amazon. You can listen for free to a complete reading of the novel by Chowney at www.podiobooks.com/title/paraffin-winter.