Winter Flowers is a poignant, sensitively written tale on the devastating consequences of war and myriad forms of loss left in its wake.
What exactly was a war? An enormous grey mass, intangible and impossible. incomprehensible.
Set during the closing stages of the First World War, the novel charts the story of Toussaint Caillet, his wife Jeanne and their young daughter Léo who Toussaint hasn’t seen growing up.
While Toussaint, like all men mobilized for the war, is away on the frontlines, Jeanne, like all women, is home managing day to day life and hoping fervently for the safe return of her husband. However, with income dwindling and crippling rations taking their toll, Jeanne must somehow make ends meet. After all, she now alone bears the responsibility of raising their daughter. With her qualifications, she finds work at a flower-making workshop, creating flowers that are ‘naturals’, an array of blooms with vivid colours that also give the novel its name.
When making flowers, Jeanne metamorphoses into an incredibly self-possessed creature whose focus, skill and attention to detail enthrall anyone who has the opportunity to watch her work. She can make 900 cowslip flowers in a day. Her hands produce improbable tea roses as opulent as lettuces, explosive swells of petals speckled with a shimmer of blood red or cherry red. She conjures up clusters, stalks and ears, umbels and flower heads, all more beautiful and more real than the real thing.
Given that jobs for women have become scarce and unreliable during war, she is grateful to have found work to occupy her, but the hours are long and deeply tiring.
Meanwhile, news reaches Jeanne that Toussaint is alive but grievously injured, his face has taken the brunt of the injury requiring facial reconstruction. Jeanne wants to meet him at the Val-de-Grace hospital but is deeply troubled by Toussaint’s explicit instructions that he has no desire to meet her yet.
And then suddenly one day, Jeanne comes home to discover that Toussaint has returned. He is unrecognizable, one side of his face is lopsided covered in bandages.
At first Jeanne stays rooted to her chair, entirely consumed with watching him and avoiding him. She knows what she should see, though, where she should look, but it bounces about, slips away from her. What she does grasp is that he’s taller, and handsome in his uniform, and unfamiliar too.
She doesn’t think, He’s here, she thinks, It’s here. This unknown thing that’s coming home to her. That she’s dreaded, and longed for.
But although Toussaint is back safe, Jeanne immediately realizes that he is the not the man she once knew. The trauma of the war and facial injuries have rendered him shell shocked and unable to communicate. Where he once was a dynamic, jovial man, he has now been reduced to a silent wreck.
Toussaint introduces something new, not just within the walls of the small fourth-floor room, but also into Jeanne’s life and, to a lesser extent, into Léo’s: silence.
The mother and daughter whisper around him, in the narrow spaces relinquished to them by this silence.
Intertwined with this main storyline is that of Sidonie, Jeanne’s best friend and confidante, both women finding mutual support and companionship in each other.
So the two women see a good deal of each other. They share what little they have, the coffee and heating, the lack of coffee and lack of heating. The silences and absences. Their meager meals too, occasionally.
Sidonie stitches clothes for a department store and has led a hard life. Having lost two husbands and four sons in tragic circumstances, Sidonie’s sole family is her son Eugene, who writes to her regularly but these letters stop when he is reported missing. The eventual confirmation of his death unleashes a wave of unimaginable grief in Sidonie.
What could Jeanne have added, with her own semi-tragedy – what placating promises, what lies? Toussaint, by contrast, would eventually heal, would get used to it, settle and pull himself together; at least, she could try to believe this and picture herself coming to terms with the man he’d turned into, with his injuries and his memories.
But what about Sidonie?
Winter Flowers is a poignant, profound meditation on grief and loss. How do we measure loss? Is death the only defining feature of a loss? What about the loss of a person’s spirit and personality, the very essence of one’s being? The story moves fluidly between the present where Jeanne and Toussaint must begin life anew just when peace is around the corner, and the past when rumblings of the war had just begun fuelling heightened tension and a sense of growing unreality.
As Jeanne struggles to adjust to Toussaint’s unsettling silence, she is often gripped by feelings of guilt. A part of her is relieved that Toussaint is alive. After all, so many others have suffered a much more terrible fate – either they are dead or worse, reported missing. And yet, she is painfully aware that Toussaint is a different man now, circumstances have made their life weary and fragile. Somehow they have to find that delicate balance, a way to adapt to this new, uncertain future and find their footing together. Subtle moments of joy do feature in the novel – the happy carefree days the couple enjoyed before the war, and even in the present when they find comfort in simple pleasures just when victory is in sight, a sense that things can limp back to a new kind of normalcy.
What about their daughter Léo? Having shared her space all her life with her mother, Leo has to come to terms with the sudden appearance of her father, a man she mostly never knew in flesh, only barely through a photo.
Winter Flowers, then, is a quiet, devastating novella that sensitively depicts the heavy burden of war, how debilitating it is psychologically not just on the men who were away fighting in harsh conditions, but also on the women they were compelled to leave behind, women who had to battle poverty, uncertainty, fear and emotional distress on a daily basis. Given that the act of war is often instigated by powerful people with ulterior motives, patriotism is often lauded. But the suffering and psychological damage is hardly ever acknowledged, damage that can also leave a lasting impression on subsequent generations.