“Winter Loon” by Susan Bernhard


Thanks to Little A and NetGalley for the review copy.

I admit it…I requested this book because it has a bird on the cover. Not just any bird, but a Great Northern Diver as they are known in Scotland or, a Common Loon as they are called in North America. This bird is anything but common in my neck of the woods however. In Northern Scotland where I grew up, they are a relatively rare visitor. I am, and always have been, a massive bird nerd and seeing one of these was always a dream of mine. One day when I was still in Primary School, (aged about ten or eleven) I was walking home from school in the small village we lived in at the time. There was a shortcut down behind a row of small council houses and there, in front of me was an injured Great Northern Diver. It really was a magical moment and one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. The bird was so beautiful with its glossy black feathers, dagger like beak and striking red eye. Although it was decidedly unhappy to be corralled by a young girl, I managed to keep it safe until the SSPCA officer arrived.

But I digress! 

This book isn’t in fact about a Winter Loon although they do make an appearance. This novel is about Wes, a teenage boy living in Minnesota in what I’m guessing is the 1970s or 1980s?  I couldn’t get much of a grasp on the time period. At the outset of the novel his mother dies after falling into a frozen lake and Wes is sent to live with his grandparents, Gip and Ruby, in a small Minnesotan town after his father leaves him to go to Montana for work.

It’s hard to believe that this is Susan Bernhard’s debut novel. The writing is mature and sophisticated, and the characters have genuine depth and resonance. The portrayal of a small town will be familiar to anyone who has lived in that setting and the little observations and details really bring the settings and characters to life. This novel made for painful reading at times with some of the themes explored including domestic and sexual abuse, dysfunctional families, racism and poverty. The novel also encapsulates the realities of working-class lives in small town America and captures the teenage experience of first love, friendship, grief, the meaning of family and strained parental relationships. The author did a really great job of encapsulating the coming of age journey of a teenage boy. The dynamic between Wes and his father was at turns heartbreaking and frustrating and there was a sense of fatalism about their relationship. The flashbacks to Wes’ relationship with his mother and his growing understanding of her experiences also made for difficult reading at times. Life is messy but the love they had for each other was genuinely touching and portrayed beautifully. I also thought the love story was really sweet and I was rooting for them until the end.  

Ok, enough gushing. I’ve wracked my brains and I really can’t think of any criticisms to level at this book but I really can’t think of anyone. I enjoyed it from start to finish and it achieved exactly what it set out to do. I was absolutely gripped towards the end and stayed up till 2am ugly crying into my pillow in order to finish it. This is the kind of book I would enthusiastically recommend to others to read, particularly those who enjoy sensitive and deep character driven narratives. Also, the cover is gorgeous of course! 😉 


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