With Winter Comes Darkness, Robbi Neal

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

On paper this should have been right up my cobblestone alley, but I've been thinking about it for over a week now, trying to identify what didn't quite tick my personal boxes. And this is very much a personal reaction. As with all books, there will be lots of readers for which WITH WINTER COMES DARKNESS ticks boxes, dots i's and crosses all the t's.

Set in the 1970's in Ballarat, WITH WINTER COMES DARKNESS is made up of two main story lines. The first is Alice's life and the car accident that turns it upside down. Her handsome, assured, lawyer husband is driving out in the rural surrounds, with his kids and a female friend in the car, when a dreadful crash kills one of their children and changes Alice's life forever more.

At the same time a brutally murdered man is found on the small farm of Ellery, a quiet, mildly neurodiverse maths teacher, well known to many of the local police. When he's found at home, with no memory of how the dead man came to be there, but with blood on his clothes, he's arrested on the spot. 

When Alice and Ellery's lives intertwine they end up in a sort of parallel dance that intersects and then moves away, as do the stories of the events that have occurred around them. 

DISCLAIMER: It was a bit weird to be reading about the town that I grew up around, the place I went to high school in, worked in for a bit and then left, within the timeframe in which this book is set. So perhaps that's part of the problem, because little of it felt familiar and much didn't seem to be ringing many bells. Fully aware that's a long time ago now, and those bells are increasingly hard to hear, but still, I was struggling to get a sense of connection.

Having said that, there was something very prescient and current day about the relationship between Alice and her controlling husband. And that's certainly something about this novel - there are a lot of disagreeable people in this one (on purpose obviously), which this author has pulled off with considerable skill. It can't be easy to write a story so overwhelmed by horrible people and keep it as engaging, albeit just a bit too slow for this reader's preference. It's also tricky to create two central characters with whom the reader is allowed to have empathy, whilst simultaneously fighting back an urge to want to shake some sense into. In this case Alice, in particular, was equal parts frustrating and engaging. Ellery's story was sad, and extremely believable, although the ending may not be to everyone's taste - and in particular this reader - whose allergy to saccharine endings is on record.

Ultimately, I suspect some of my issues with the novel were around the struggle to understand why the timeframe, which seemed to contribute little, with the issues tackled seeming like a more obvious fit with current day timeframes and sensibilities. The difficulties that neurodiversity brings with it are much more openly acknowledged these days, as are the issues around controlling, gaslighting relationships and dodgy domestic situations. The other problem I had was with the pacing, it meandered which didn't fit with my expectations of such complex, traumatic experiences. It's also slightly more on the romantic suspense side than I'd expected, so may be just the ticket for fans of that style of novel.


Year of Publication

A terrible accident burns down a family's life on the same day a murder is committed. From the ashes of these acts comes revelation, darkness, and the truth. Psychological suspense and profound family drama meet in this heartrending and original Australian novel.

1975, Ballarat Alice is happy in her world and in return for her happiness the world is good to her. She has everything she needs - a lovely house and children, and a devoted husband. Even though her journalism job doesn't pay much, she doesn't have to worry about the bills. All is well with her world until a terrible accident rips a child from her, a profound betrayal is uncovered, and things fall apart.

On the same day Alice's world collapses, a man is found brutally murdered on respected teacher Ellery's farm. Ellery can't remember what happened but there is blood on his clothes, and he is arrested.

Neither Alice nor Ellery realise that their paths in life are about to intertwine and a desperate bargain is about to be made. A bargain that could save or destroy them in their quest to draw some light and fathom the darkness that surrounds them.

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