Reviews | Written by Laura Potier 19/03/2020



One day after her partner leaves to travel South America, Isabelle receives devastating news from home. Her father’s body was found hanging in Crystal Palace Park, having taken his own life. Rather than return home to her emotionally abusive mother and her new university job, Isabelle chooses to remain alone in Strasbourg, stalking the city and losing herself in its history. 

After coming upon an evocative old photograph at a market stall, she begins to obsess over stories of Strasbourg’s great artists, charting their lives through her own investigations and chance conversations with eccentric locals. She slowly submerges herself in the city’s past, succumbing to an “amnesia of history” that feels far more tangible than her current existence, plagued as she is by visions of her father’s body and the malevolent spirit of the Erl-King.

How Pale the Winter Has Made Us is a story of grief told through the meticulous mapping of a city. The narrative often blurs the line between the gothic genre and contemporary realism, as Isabelle is haunted by the Erl-King, following her every step and creeping into her bed at night, invading her and leaving marks on her body. Whether this figure is a supernatural being or a manifestation of her guilt and grief, or even an embodiment of her depression and self-harming, is a decision left to the reader.  

The novel’s structure and language are methodical and restrained, yet deeply evocative. What the first-person narrative tells us of Isabelle’s background is minimal, while other figures are painted with just a single stroke: her father a failure, her partner distant, her mother cruel. In contrast, the lives and accomplishments of Johannes Gutenberg, Goethe, Gustave Doré and Jean Arp are richly told and abundant with detail. As she unfolds their histories in the streets of Strasbourg, Isabelle increasingly struggles to block the personal thoughts and feelings intruding on her research. 

The storytelling grows more claustrophobic as Isabelle nears closer to her tipping point; whether that point will come as a mental break or an emotional release contributes to the intensifying tension. The winding, dense narrative will not be for everyone. It is above all a meditative journey and one with little plot nor drama, but those with the patience to follow the stream of histories and reveries to its satisfying end, will find the poignant tale of someone who was lost finding themselves again.