15 May 2009

Winter Song

by Jean-Claude Mourlevat. Translated by Anthea Bell.

Walker Books, Young Adult. Paperback rrp $16.95

Guest Reviewer - Jo Burnell

‘You have no idea how good this book is.’ My 14-year-old voracious reader is extremely selective with books. The emotion in her voice is enough to push Winter Song to the top of my ‘to read’ list.

Set in a fictional country in Europe, Winter Song throbs with tension. Large groups of orphaned teenagers live in boarding schools that are more like prison camps. They are allowed only three trips outside the school grounds each year to visit Consolers. These times of comfort are the only windows of relief from a life of somber monotony.

Milena and Helen meet two boys at the town bridge as they are heading to the Consolers and the boys are returning from there. This chance meeting creates bonds of friendship and sets up a chain of events that will change the world as they have known it, forever. The world turns upside-down when Milena runs away with one of the boys. No one in living memory has attempted to escape and succeeded before. The reason for their madness unfolds, one clue at a time, as does the terrible danger they place themselves in. Dog-men (half man, half dog) track them mercilessly, while the gentle horsemen strive to protect them.

Winter Song is more than just action-packed. It explores themes like making and breaking promises, standing up for what you believe in, and the terrible cost that is sometimes paid for doing so. Strong images awaken the senses. Snow chills me to the bone, while the smell of burning wood mingles with the pungent scent of dog-men. I stand beside these teenagers, sharing their experiences as they hide from pursuers, fight for their lives and struggle to believe that their cause is not futile.

Winter Song was originally written in French. An occasional attempt at translation misses the mark, but it is worth passing over these tiny glitches to enjoy the full power of the voices against tyranny that rise from the pages.

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