Book review: This Winter (A Heartstopper novella) by Alice Oseman

(courtesy Goodreads)

It’s a rare thing these days to have anything become a water cooler hit.

For one thing, we are far less likely, in the wake of the pandemic, to be in an office these days, much less one with a water cooler, but for quite another, we are living digitally disparate lives, everyone reading or watching or listening to their own slice of pop culture pleasure in their own way.

So, the fact that Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper series, already popular as a series of graphic novels, made it out of a niche world of mostly LGBTQ fans and out into the big wide world courtesy of its adaption as a Netflix series, is phenomenally rare and testament to the fact that this is a storyline that cuts to the heart of what it means to be human, no matter your sexuality or gender identification.

The story of two young men in the later years of high school, one out and gay (Charlie Spring) and the other curiously bisexual and unexpectedly open to a relationship with someone of the same sex (Nick Nelson), who find each other in a classroom and slowly and beautifully affectingly realise they love each other, Heartstopper is a gem of a story that evocatively reminds us how wonderful and necessary it is to find our people, our person anda sense of inviolable belonging that can weather all kinds of storms.

Like Christmas with a fractious family, perhaps.

It’s not that the Springs don’t love each other but in the wake of Charlie being booked into and released from a psychiatric ward to deal with his anorexia, the family is fraught and uncertain about which way is emotionally up and how to handle a break in the expected order of things.

‘I hate Christmas,’ Tori says.

‘No you don’t,’ I say.

‘I hate this one.’

‘Everyone hates this one.’

Eight months into their relationship – so This Winter falls somewhere in the early part of the graphic novel series – Nick is there for Charlie without question as is Charlie’s older sister Tori and his vivaciously upbeat seven-year-old brother Oliver who is the hope and optimism that Charlie and Tori seem manifestly unable to summon.

Charlie’s mum and dad love him but neither is entirely certain how to respond to their son, an emotionally fraught situation that adds to the already delicate balance of Christmas when grandparents and cousins and a host of others turn up, each with their own dynamics at play, and upset the fragile balance that barely exists in the Spring family.

Charlie does his best to get through what is supposed to be the most wonderful day of the year but in-between fights with his mum, awkward exchanges with his dad and an uncle and cousins who simply don’t have a clue and inadvertently treat him like some sort of freak circus act, Charlie is dealing with a lot of pressure on top of the already worn sense of self within.

(courtesy Hachette Australia)

The beauty of Oseman’s work generally, and This Winter in particular, is that she handle some huge, highly emotional issues in gently incisive and comfortingly empathetic ways.

There’s possibly nothing new about a family under stress at Christmas time but there is about a family grappling with one temporarily broken child who desperately wants to be whole again and being a teenager, is still struggling with how on earth to express or handle it.

Charlie’s mum might get frustrated, and angry with him, but she’s struggling too to know how to respond to the pain of her child, and being human, doesn’t always handle it as well as she could but then neither does anyone.

Charlie walks out on his family in the middle of Christmas Day, Tori loses it at him feels abandoned when she needs her brother, with whom she’s super close, the most, Nick’s brother is an insensitive douche and all around, Charlie is stuck in a world that he wants to be a part of again but which doesn’t seem to know how to let him in.

This Winter does a movingly sweet job of diving into these complex issues in a nuanced and quietly accessible way, arriving at the end of its story with not so much a happy-ever-after, because life is rarely ever that neat and tidy, as a possible sort of happy-ever-after which in a world that makes no promises about where or how happily you’ll land, is actually pretty good.

‘Today’s just been really hard,’ I begin, and Nick takes my hand while aI tell him everything. I tell him about the arguments. About the stress and the sleeplessness and all my annoying relatives. About how I wanted to have a ‘normal’ Christmas Day, whatever that is.

I know Nick can’t fix anything. Even if eh could, he shouldn’t have to. But just talking about everything eases a bit of the tightness in my chest.

Spending Christmas with Charlie is as emotionally authentic as you think it will be.

Oseman does a masterful job of presenting a family and associated friends and relatives who want to commune with the very best angels of their nature, who long for closeness and intimate belonging but who don’t always get there because they are flawed and normal and human.

No one gets demonised, not even Nick’s brother David who is as idiotically insensitive as they come, with Oseman, as she has done throughout the whole Heartstopper series, very much embracing the idea that people reach for the stars and stumble into a muddy ditch instead but that that doesn’t take away from the fact that their hearts are good and they want the best for those they care.

The gift of novels like This Winter, which is framed as a mix of a YA novella with some graphic novel elements, is that it presents a very common situation – getting through the magic and wonder and emotional stress of Christmas Day with your sense of self intact and your sense of community not ripped to shreds – in a way that a great many people, especially those often on the outer like LGBTQ people, can deeply relate to.

Even in the happiest of families, we have all been in a place where life has felt impossible and unable to be lived even remotely like we envisage and This Winter beautifully embraces us and tells us that that’s OK and we’ll get there in small ways that may not fix everything but which will fix enough for now.

The book’s tagline asks whether this Christmas will “drive the Spring family apart or start to out them back together”, and while there’s no real definitive answer to that in this short but powerfully emotionally impactful book, there is hope that that will happen and that Charlie and his loving but uncertain family will find a way back again to some kind of intimacy, impelled by the events of a big day in the calendar which can cause all kinds of pain but which, happily for those in need of it, can start healing too.

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