Thursday, 15 August 2019

The Light in the Dark, A Winter Journal - by Horatio Clare

I've read other books by Horatio Clare. Some are about nature and about the people and places he meets on his travels: Orison for a Curlew, for instance, is about his search for the slender-billed curlew, which is thought to have become extinct - a search which took him through bits of Europe which tourists mostly don't visit. Icebreaker is - fairly obviously - about a voyage on an icebreaker. But both of these are about the people as much as the journey: he is clearly very interested in and intrigued by people, and he's a generous, sympathetic observer.

He's also written three books for children - I wrote about the first of these, Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot, here. I thought it was enchanting: full of magic but with a very serious side to it. It's about a father who suffers from depression, and how his small son copes with this and helps his dad to fight against it. It deals with the subject in the most imaginative way, so that although the story is about depression, it's not the least bit depressing itself. On the contrary, it's an adventure, full of energy and delight,with Aubrey, lively, brave and sensitive, as its invincible hero.

The Light in the Dark covers some of the same ground - though in a very different way - and allows us to meet Aubrey again. For Aubrey is Horatio's son, and Horatio does indeed suffer from depression. This book is about the winter of 2017-18. Horatio's depression is linked to the seasons, and is worse in the winter (towards the end of the book, it's diagnosed as cyclothymia, a milder version of bi-polar disorder, which is exacerbated by the seasons). The book charts his struggle to master it, or at least to prevent it from impacting too much on his family, whom he clearly loves very dearly. But it is also about winter itself, and particularly about a northern, countryside winter: this was the winter of the Beast From The East: a dramatic, snowy winter, not the kind that kills you with dampness.

Published by Elliott and Thompson, this is a very beautifully produced book. My copy is a hardback, with a slip cover by Dan Mogford, which shows snowy hills against a sky shading from navy to lapis to turquoise. It is framed by the black silhouettes of bare trees, and sprinkled with stars which, magically, change from gold to silver according to the angle at which you hold the book. It's in diary format, but is divided into sections by tiny drawings of snowflakes.

It's an account of this winter, but of other times too: of Horatio's childhood on a sheep farm in Wales, of his meeting his partner, Rebecca, and a magical Christmas in Venice; of journeys he's taken and people he's met. Although he writes honestly about his depression, it is not a depressing book. On the contrary, it is affirming of life, of love, of nature. The language is rich, pictorial, precise: for example - There have been ominous sunsets like spilled fire under brooding cloud, and in daylight the bare trees reveal the country and its creatures in a clarity the other seasons deny. (There is a lovely balance and rhythm to that sentence.)

And about what the depression does to him: ...somehow I must not let the worry make me a terrible father and a ghastly person to live with. I will fail at this - I am failing at this, I know. The negative, like an egg hatching, produces a kind of dark thing which sits in my mouth, spitting out gloom whenever it can. I try not to speak.

But then on the other hand there's Aubrey, and joy: Up into the wood we went, Aubrey poking the runnels, delighted by trapped air bubbles and white-starred ice. He was tremendous this half-term morning, climbing rocks, telling stories about sea-planes and snow troopers, whipping through his letters...

The book is a treat: each word is to be savoured. And I hesitate to say it, because I know it's a bit early, and you don't need my advice anyway - but it would be a perfect Christmas present!

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