A Girl in Winter – Philip Larkin


Published: 1985

Pages: 256

Challenges:Reading through the Seasons; Guardian 1000 novels; Orbis Terrarum; Support your local library

Rating: 3/5

From the dust jacket:

“This story of Katherine Lind and Robin Fennel, of winter and summer, of war and peace, of exile and holidays.”

Usually when I pick a book to read, I have read reviews or it has been recommended and I have an idea what it will be about. This one was a blank slate from a reading point of view – I knew nothing about it at all but was encouraged by the blurb above.

It opens with a short chapter describing the cold, bleak snowy conditions of winter and in this way sets the mood for the rest of the story.

Set in and just outside of London during WWII, the story is told in three parts, the first and third take place at the beginning and end of a single day with the middle section being a flashback.

Katherine Lind is in her 20’s and works in a library. She has no real friends and has a very irritating supervisor whose main occupation seems to be to find fault with her work and remind them both of his superiority. We learn that Katherine is foreign but not where she is from and also that she has been to England once before.

After the opening wintry description, the scene shifts to the library on a Saturday morning. Katherine is assigned the task of taking a colleague who has terrible toothache home. The disgruntled and uncoperative colleague ends up resting at Katherine’s flat – through their interaction, we learn that Katherine lives alone in this small flat and that she is expecting a letter from Robin Fennel who she met on her previous visit to England. She is anxious about the letter, whether she will receive it at all and whether Robin will want to see her again when he learns she is back in the country.

Part two is a flashback to the summer of this previous visit – when Katherine stayed with the Fennnel’s as part of a student foreign exchange programme.

Part three reverts back to the afternoon and evening of the present.

I read this book a few weeks ago and seem to have been stalling on writing my thoughts on it – but here goes…

I liked the way the story was constructed with the three parts – this was well done and after reading the first part, I still had no idea really of what I was reading about – was it going to be a thriller or perhaps a love story? Whatever it was, I was very keen to keep reading and find out.

Unfortunately it didn’t really end up being about much, plot wise, and there were potentially interesting characters introduced who sort of petered out before they got going. Katherine being foreign is brought up regularly but we are not told for sure where she is from. I found that a bit odd and was imagining all sorts of possible reasons for this, none of which eventuated.

My overall feeling from the book is one of bleakness, as the title and opening suggest. I think the message is that life is lonely and any hopes and excitement we have about other people fade away once familiarity sets in – life is basically ordinary and people disappointing.

Interestingly, this book is classified under “state of the nation” in the Guardian 1000 novels to read before you die” list. If the author was illustrating this sense of lonlieness and isolation as a wartime consequence of being away from home and family, he would have done an excellent job but I’m not convinced he was. I think he was making a general observation about how life can be regardless of any external circumstances – which I found a little depressing…


11 responses to “A Girl in Winter – Philip Larkin

  1. I read “The Girl in Winter” because I’m a huge fan of Phillip Larkin’s poetry. This novel was somewhat off-putting for me. It may be as you describe, its bleakness. I will stick from now on to Larkin’s poetry.

  2. Tony – I’ve never read Larkin’s poetry – or much poetry at all actually! When I’m a bit bolder I’ll take a look. I agree about this story being off-putting. I won’t be seeking any of his other novels out just now. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Pingback: Orbis Terrarum Challenge – Completed! « A Book Sanctuary

  4. Hi, just a thought on Katherine’s nationality: her surname ‘Lind’, would suggest that she is of Scandinavian origin.

    The book is set during the second world war so I took the hostility she faced from the other characters to be perhaps a result of her nationality which would have been natural during wartime Britain (particularly from the street urchin in chapter 3 when he hears her accent which could have been perceived as German/Austrian to a child).

    Larkin tends to focus on the treatment of outsiders in his poetry and how better to express this theme than with someone from the ‘opposition’ during WWII.

  5. ladypez, Hi, It was a while ago now that I read this but I still remember it quite well. I think your thoughts about Katherine’s perceived nationality and people’s reaction to that during WWII sound spot on.

    It was a strange reading experience, one where I felt I was probably missing something. Thanks for taking the time to comment 0:)

  6. I just loved this book so much. It is a beautifully structured story, and each of the various subplots interlinking later on in significant ways — thought-provoking payoffs in and some some exquisitely engineered laughs. The ending is touching beyond belief, and is one of the few books that ever made me cry. Brilliant, wonderful, lovely storytelling.

    • Elllie – thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on a book you really loved. I read this quite a long time ago now and from other people’s thoughts on it think I may have skimmed the surface but missed some of the deeper layers. I think timing and mood play an important part too – perhaps this is a book to put on my rare re-read list 0:)

  7. Well Larkin was fundamentally a poet and his two novels were written in his early 20s when still developing into the wonderful poet he would become. To that end I’d familiarise yourself with Larkin’s poetry as it would offer the kind of stylistic insight that might make A Girl In Winter more appealing should you re-read it.

  8. James – thank you for your comment and I will take your advice and dip my toes into Larkin’s poetry.

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