Dominic Cooper: The Dead Of Winter

the-dead-of-winter

I’m currently reading this, a revised edition of Dominic Cooper‘s 1976 novel The Dead Of Winter. It won the Somerset Maugham Award for what that’s worth, but for a first novel it’s a very assured piece of work that is replete with lengthy passages describing the landscape in which the story unfolds. The island of Cragaig lies in western Scotland, home to Alasdair Mor, a native in his mid-40’s whose life as he’s always known, and all that he holds dear, is seemingly threatened by the arrival of a reckless and unpredictable stranger. That’s what drives the narrative, but what gives the events a deeper resonance is the attention to detail Cooper gives to every shift in the weather, every rutted path, every wind-warped tree and storm-smashed cove. The descriptions of landscape and the feelings invoked are reminiscent of J.A.Baker at his most expressive:

The peace in his mind was supreme. It was a peace which was based on no practical considerations but which rose from a strange ability to find his balance in relation to the world. For most people it is usually something which can only last briefly after which they slip back to the insecurities and buried worries of their daily existence. For Alasdair however it was an experience which moved ceaselessly in and out of his life, carrying him along on a level which had little to do with that of the outside world. And for Alasdair, that evening, the sensation was that of the hawk soaring, the loss of the perspectives of time. And the sea before him, stretching out like a breastplate of polished steel with the great road of light from the foundered sun upon it, the sea also reflected the calm within him.

Cooper’s an interesting man. He wrote only four published novels, together with short stories, essays and TV scripts. After being thrown out of Oxford University, there followed stints in London, Iceland, Sweden and Edinburgh before he finally settled in western Scotland where he works as a restorer of old timepieces. After his last novel, 1987’s The Horn Fellow, Cooper discovered he had “ran out of words” and accepted it. Lesser men would have tried to crank out bland and dreary repeats of their most celebrated and lucrative work (you can all think of several career writers guilty of this, I’m sure) but Cooper did the only thing that seemed sane to him, which was to built a house 300 feet up a hill that is miles away from any other human presence. This yearning for isolation and peace suffuses every page of The Dead Of Winter. Highly recommended.

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