‘The Winter Triptych’ by Nicole Kornher-Stace
-Reviewed by Tori Truslow–
A kitchen girl creeps through a winter-wrapped tower, crossing paths with the ghost of a long-dead queen. A hundred years ago, in a different winter, the same queen swells with child and ruthlessly quells rebels. Nicole Kornher-Stace’s strange, whispering novella darts back and forth between the two, slowly drawing them together
It’s structurally brilliant. The two halves are told in alternating chapters with titles like “The Maid: detail, right panel” and “The Tower: detail, left panel”. The reader quickly picks up that the right panel is the present and the left is the past, each scene a ‘detail’ of the bigger picture, and each picture one half of the whole story. The artistic terminology works well, evoking the image of an actual triptych and thus the question: where is the central panel in all of this? As the two halves of the story draw inexorably closer the question becomes more pressing, the blank space all the more noticeable by its absence, so that when the first piece of the ‘centre panel’ appears and brings the two halves together, the payoff is as aesthetically satisfying as it is enthralling.
The story is like winter: seemingly sparse but with dark things brooding underneath, hidden under drifts of dreaming prose. Ghosts, witches, cursed princesses and other such familiar fairy-tale figures haunt its pages, and it has all the blood and cruelty of the old tales, but certain details – the kitchen maids chained up to sleep; the fate of the rebels – make the characters’ pain less mythic, closer to the bone. The monster, when it appears, is chilling and gruesome, all the more so in contrast to the quiet snowy story-scape it appears against.
The language is at once folkloric and incisive: witness sentences like ‘she wrapped stories round her sins like poultices, but the guilt still paced her like a caged cat, far too wakeful for her peace.’ The dreamlike tone works best when there is little dialogue; the first few chapters are heavier on the dialogue than the rest, and the numerous ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ feel somewhat awkward, if suited to the setting.
It’s visually gorgeous, too. Oliver Hunter’s cover art is a luxurious picture-story in itself. The book comes from Papaveria Press, who produce limited edition hand-bound books as well as paperbacks like this one; their website is worth a browse for anyone who likes beautiful books. Now is a good time to check them out, because Papaveria are currently donating all their profits to the work of Doctors Without Borders in Japan.
[ED: Following the tsunami devestation in Japan, Nicole Kornher-Stace has also pledged to donate royalties from copies of The Winter Triptych sold before March 21st – you can help out this cause by buying from her publisher’s site at www.papaveria.com/the-winter-triptych.]
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