Winter Flowers

So many novels have now been written about the First World War, it sometimes it feels that contemporary writers should accept they are unlikely to add anything new. Yet Angélique Villeneuve’s Winter Flowers, originally published in French in 2014 and now translated by Adriana Hunter, focuses on two areas which have received little attention in fiction: the men who returned from the war severely injured and disfigured, and the women who survived these years alone at home. Winter Flowers tells the story of one couple (and their young daughter, Leo): Jeanne, who has survived by making artificial flowers, and her husband Toussaint, who has been badly injured at the front and has spent months recuperating in hospital before eventually returning home shortly before the end of the war.

Toussaint returns with all his limbs, but with his face badly disfigured and covered with a cloth mask, which he refuses it remove even in his wife’s presence. Before we are even aware of this physical damage, Villeneuve emphasises the physicality of the family’s relationships, beginning with the opening scene where Jeanne, despite the ache and exhaustion of work, brushes her face across Leo’s, chest:

“First with the ends of stray hairs that have escaped from her plaited bun and then with her eyelashes, she skims the child’s writhing chest, the area of skin that her knitted top lays bare.”

Such physical closeness between husband and wife, which Jeanne has been deprived of while her husband is fighting, and then even after his return, withdrawn and silent, continues to be subtly hinted at, for example in a description of Leo “her nose pressed up to her rag doll’s face.” When Toussaint lies sleeping next to her, her strongest desire is to touch him:

“She reaches out her hand, skims the hot, rough skin of his chin.”

The distance between them, however, is not only physical. Even before Toussaint reappears in her life, Jeanne has been hurt by the message she receives when he is admitted to hospital: “I want you not to come.” She describes these words as “claws, and she bore the scratch marks on her neck,” an example of how Villenueve will frequently describe emotions as physical sensations. When, after days of silence, he finally speaks his first word is ‘no’:

“A word of lava and flint, an underwater shard that has rubbed up against saliva and blood, splinters and caves.”

But first, the silence, a silence which, in a sense, begins even before his injury and return. Once he is at war, Jeanne says of the letters he sends her, “They surrendered no true facts about life at the front,” and that she asks questions “but he never replied.” Now that silent presence is in their small apartment:

“He’s just there, shut down, shut away.”

Later Jeanne wonders whether “she’d allowed herself to be swept up in the habit of silence,” and Villeneuve includes one chapter where Jeanne breaks her own silence, uncertain whether Toussaint is awake and listening, as paragraph after paragraph begins “She says…” This is her attempt to cross the gap between them, created just as much by their time apart as Toussaint’s injury:

“Toussaint, whether in the trenches or in hospital, knew nothing of the life they led.”

Rather than focus only on the ignorance of civilians regarding conditions at the front, Villeneuve draws attention to the gap in understanding. We see this from both sides: Toussaint, for example, is drawn to those who do understand his experience – when he leaves the apartment one day, Jeanne follows him and finds him meeting with a group of war-wounded soldiers. Villeneuve also demonstrates that this gap does not only exist in Jeanne and Toussaint’s relationship, showing us the uncomfortable ‘patriotism’ of those at home, as when a woman on the Metro begins publicly praising a disfigured soldier, or when she accompanies her friend Sidonie to a ceremony where she will receive a certificate for her dead son. There she describes the mayor’s speech as “riddled with impassioned fragments,” which cannot help but suggest shrapnel, just as she similarly uses language we associate with the violence of war to describe the sympathetic comments received by Toussaint:

“She’d be spattered with it right up to her face and down her neck.”

Sidonie’s experience (having lost sons to tuberculosis, she has now lost her final son to the war) is one way Villeneuve widens the scope of the novel, showing not only the losses suffered by women but the camaraderie. The two neighbours have helped each other throughout the war, even sleeping in the same bed for warmth. 

Winter Flowers is, at heart, a love story – that Jeanne and Toussiant have loved each other is never in doubt – but a love story which asks the question whether that love can be rekindled after the separation and trauma they have experienced. At one point Jeanne asks, “What is war?”

“An enormous grey mass, intangible and impossible.”

 By viewing the effects of the war on one family, Villeneuve allows us to see it more clearly.

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4 Responses to “Winter Flowers”

  1. Julé Cunningham Says:

    A wonderful review – I especially like all the different aspects of the book you have brought out. It’s a book that still languishes on my TBR, but someday…

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Adding this to my wishlist as the two factors you’ve highlighted are the types of areas I’m interested in. Have you read Rebecca West’s The Return of the soldier? It strikes me that there might be some parallels between the two books.

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