A MIDWINTER’S TAIL by Lili Hayward (BUDDY READ REVIEW)
Beth and Nils are back with another buddy read, this time something quite different from their last read!
They’ve snuggled up with some hot chocolate and Lili Hayward’s cosy festive story A Midwinter’s Tail:
A town in need.
An extraordinary cat.
A season for miracles…
It’s nearly Christmas and committed Londoner, Mina Kestle, is close to signing a deal that will make her career and give her everything she’s ever wanted. And then she receives a mysterious letter in the post along with an ancient key, sent by her long-estranged godfather . . .
Davy Penhallow is an artist who lives on the tiny Cornish island of Morgelyn with only his pet cat, Murr, for company. Mina hasn’t seen or heard from him in decades, but now it seems he wants her to look after his cottage – and his cat – while he recovers from a stroke in hospital. Mina doesn’t know why Davy has written after all these years, but she intends to do what’s right: sort out the cottage and the cat and then get back to London in time for her career-saving meeting, before everything she’s built comes crashing down around her.
But the more time Mina spends in the cottage, looking after Murr and remembering the magic of Cornish folklore, the harder it becomes for her to tear herself away. And when she discovers that a set of ruthless property developers are coming for Morgelyn, she realises she might be the only one who can stand in their way to save the island, Davy’s cottage and Murr’s home.
As Christmas draws ever closer and echoes of the past – her own and the island’s – wash up in her memory, Mina begins to unravel a generation of secrets… and discover what it is she has truly always wanted . . .
The perfect magical read to cosy up with on chilly winter nights…
Let’s start, as always, with our first impressions
Beth: We start with a prologue and I loved it. It immediately took me back to living in a coastal village as a child. There were stories of a village further along the coast that had drowned in the middle ages, and local folklore was you could still hear the bells of the church. And of course we weren’t far away from the Ceredigion coast and its tales of the Cantre Gwaelod, a land drowned by the sea. It seems the British Isles are rife with these stories, so the opening of A Midwinter’s Tail took me right back and drew me right in.
Nils: I loved how fairytale esque the prologue was. The worship of the sea, the cat that’s obviously more than just a cat.
The story immediately draws us into the folklore of Lyonesse, the mythical island believed to have been lost at sea. After a quick search on Google I found that Lyonesse was also believed to have been the link between Cornwall and the Isle of Scilly. I love when a book can inspire me to research more.
Beth: I think starting with that folk tale was such a good set up, introducing us to the isles but also the tone and theme of the story as a whole.
Another first impression I had of A Midwinter’s Tail, it put me in mind of The Mousehole Cat a lot, that has a great Storm Cat in it too, and a cat that calms the storm by singing to it – not to mention its set in Cornwall during Christmas.
This is a great year for British folklore in fantasy!
What did you make of our protagonist, Mina?
Beth: I felt quite sorry for Mina from the get-go. It didn’t sound like she was having a good time of it in work, she sounded under a lot of pressure, and the allegations of nepotism, that she was only in her role because her boss was impressed by her father, really made me feel for her. That lack of being taken seriously for your own merit.
Nils: Yeah that was something which made me sympathise with Mina too, and though she was in a crowded office at a party full of colleagues, her only friend was Paola. It kind of gave me the impression Mina was pretty lonely.
Beth: It really did, didn’t it Nils! The fact she was able to just immediately jump on a train to Cornwall when she heard her estranged Godfather had been taken ill spoke a lot about her caring nature, but it did also highlight the lack of responsibilities and connections she had in London, that she had no-one she had to be at home for, to check this over with. This is someone adrift in life with very little keeping her moored. And of course, when she got to Cornwall, it was far from smooth sailing there! All this to say, I very quickly connected with Mina, she drew me right in and I just kept wanting the best for her.
Nils: As soon as Mina opened the cryptic letter in her bag she was immediately engulfed in little flashbacks of her godfather, and although it was years in the past it still felt as though they held so much warmth. For example as we get further into the story I loved discovering that Davy spurred Mina’s love for art, as a child he had bought her the means to let her artistic side flourish, that both Davy and Mina’s mum, Helena, came from artistic backgrounds. In contrast the memories of her father which paint the picture that he didn’t care for her happiness, he never wished for her to go to art school, and in that sense he almost feels too controlling of her. Granted there are reasons for his behaviour but it seemed Davy was more of a loving father figure to her than he ever was, so I was desperate to discover what went wrong.
Beth: Yes! She had such an unhappy and lonely sounding childhood, with just the brief months in Cornwall. I hated the sound of her father, packing her off to boarding school when her mother died and not taking her love of art seriously. I thought it was no wonder she didn’t want to be associated with him by those she worked with.
But as much as I quickly connected with Mina, I will say she stressed the hell out of me; when the days were ticking by towards when she needed to be back in work for her big meeting, which she still hadn’t prepared for, and she kept fobbing off her boss – that gave me proper anxiety lol!
Nils: Why?! lol!
Beth: I found it so stressful! That’s exactly the kind of situation in life that would induce anxiety in me: a looming deadline and seemingly no time to do anything about it. I just kept thinking, she’s not going to have time to do the presentation, and then even if she catches the train _now_, she’ll have to prepare the presentation on the train because she won’t have time when she gets home, and omg when is she going to do this damn presentation.
Nils: ok now I totally get the anxiety! That’s a situation that would stress me too.
Any favourites amongst the cast of side characters?
Nils: One aspect I loved most about this novella was the contrast between the bustling high-life of London and the rural life in a small town. The contrast between having technology and having a more cosy rustic lifestyle.
“Monday morning, I realise in disbelief. It’s Monday morning. I should be running from the Tube, grabbing coffee, dodging Christmas shoppers and instead I’m here, in a weather-beaten cottage, dozens of miles from the nearest office block, where days of the week don’t seem to exist.
A strange smile spreads across my face, as if I’m skipping school.”
Honestly when Mina couldn’t charge her phone and had to switch it off, I felt really anxious which made me realise just how much I rely on the internet and how used I am to living a city life.
Beth: This is so true Nils, I don’t live in a city, but there’s still something about being constantly connected that I’m scared to lose.
Nils: Exactly! Being cut off from the online world would freak me out. Having said that though I’d much prefer the cosy home, the roaring fire and the sounds of the sea. Yet along with that comes a community who will inevitably know everything about you, or at least speculate on every aspect of your life. I think Hayward explores that well here. That although you get everyone knowing your business you also belong to a community who cares and will fight for you and the side characters really worked to show that.
Beth: I absolutely loved the close-knit community on the Scilly Isles, it’s what I grew up knowing, it was a template for a world I was intimately familiar with. I was the one living in the village pub, which is perhaps why Elodie with her brashness was one of my favourites, and I had a Godfather, Mostyn, who was a fisherman and cockler. He was quiet and stoic and a fixture within the village who everyone knew. When everyone is at first suspicious and distrustful of Mina as this city-girl who’s turned up now Davy’s been ill, I mean where’s she been all this time then, I recognised that and again, it made me empathise for her so much, seeing that treatment from her point of view for once. This is an utterly human and recognisable community of characters who all flowed perfectly together.
Nils: That sounds lovely being part of a small village, Beth. Do you miss it?
Beth: I really do. Where I live now is only marginally bigger. It’s like the difference between living on Morgelyn, and living on that larger island? I’m now on the larger island lol
Nils: It still sounds lovely where you live.
I think my favourite of the side characters had to be Gryff, the cook and I think owner of the pub? I just loved the way he was more welcoming of Mina, less distrustful than the others. I also loved that he gave potted shrimp and Murr was the only one who appreciated it! 😂
Beth: I loved the running joke about that shrimp!
Nils: A character we hated though Beth was Olivia Penhallow, wasn’t it?
Beth: I mean, she was easy to hate, wasn’t she? At first, I wasn’t sure which of the sisters I disliked and distrusted more; I thought maybe Sam was trying to ingratiate herself and I was suspicious. But it was clear from the off they weren’t to be trusted, which in a way was incredibly cruel on poor Mina. The only people who had seemingly shown her kindness straight away, and they were doing it for false reasons.
Nils: I could see they were doing it for false reasons too, but Mina felt so welcomed by them I could see why she trusted them.
We of course have to talk about the most important person of the story: Murr!
Nils: Oh Murr was the best! So much like an ordinary cat but so otherworldly too. It was clear Murr was such a huge part of the community, they all gave Murr the best treats and cared for her wellbeing. Yet Murr was also part of ancient stories and there was always the question of how old the cat really was? I liked that ambiguity.
Beth: Same here Nils, I loved the mystery, the surely it must be another cat with the same name… We always love a folkloric animal, and of course cats are my favourite anyway, so I was absolutely in my element here. I felt Hayward captured the independent and imperious nature of cats perfectly in Murr, and then her laziness and daftness just brought a humility and believability to her that made her the perfect companion to Mina. You could really believe this is a cat who has lived countless lives comforting and guarding her humans.
What did you make of the magic and folklore?
Nils: I loved Davy’s stories so much, I loved the way they always began “Did I ever tell you, Mina, the story of the…” which just drew you in everytime.
Beth: Yes! It was his version of once upon a time, I loved the comforting repetition of it!
Nils: Each story held a quality of magic to them whilst also giving Mina memories of her mother, showing how they can provide a link to the past or a time when magic and myth was real.
“On Midwinter’s Eve there are no rules. No boundaries or divisions. Only fire in the night, only the voices singing to the sea, only the quickness of hearts, beating in defiance of the dark.”
They also remind you of the connection you had with the storyteller, as Mina slowly realised just how impactful Davy was on her life.
Beth: Absolutely Nils. Storytelling is such a magical thing, it evokes something different and special for all of us, and it’s a true testament to Hayward’s skill as a writer that she was able to conjure this storyteller so perfectly.
Nils: I think the way magic was used within the novella was really subtle and focused more on the magic of Christmas and festivities, the way it can bring people together and I just loved watching new relationships form. Mina goes from someone who had very few people in her life to having a whole community looking out for her.
Beth: You’ve hit the nail on the head, Nils. I loved the magic of the isles, of Cornwall, and Hayward was subtle with this; was it ever magic or just the susceptibility of our protagonist. She leaves it quite nebulous. But like you said, the true magic was the transformation in Mina. She has a wealth of relationships and connections now, but also she find herself and belief in herself too, and that was magical to watch develop.
Any other themes you wanted to discuss?
Nils: I appreciated the theme of going back to your roots, where you came from, the language you once spoke and the person you once were.
“I’m almost asleep when a floorboard creaks softly and a soft weight flumps onto the bed, , settling against my legs. What was it Davy used to say, when he tucked me in? The Cornish for
“Nos dha, Murt, I whisper thickly. ‘Nos dha, Mum.
Nos dha, Mina.”
Beth: I LOVED Hayward’s inclusion of Kernewek! I had no idea just how similar to Welsh it is, so I found those moments absolutely fascinating!
We’ve concentrated a lot on Mina throughout this discussion, but a big part of the story is also this small community forgotten on the fringes that others just want to turn into a play park for the wealthy, and again this is something that resonated strongly with me. We have a huge problem in West Wales with second homes and holiday homes pricing locals out of the housing market and just killing communities. Olivia Penhallow’s callous disregard for the people who called Morgelyn home made me so very angry!
Nils: Ugh yeah, Hayward really showed just what can be lost for tourism and the economy. It’s not just buildings or landmarks you’re destroying it’s entire communities and ways of life. It’s people you’re uprooting and families you’re putting into turmoil.
Did you have any favourite quotes?
Beth: This is an incredibly beautifully written story:
The call of a curlew fills my ears, haunting above the tiny, secluded cove. In the winter twilight, the waves are gentle, soft as velvet covering a fiercely beating heart
Nils: That’s so poetic too Beth. Hayward’s prose was very atmospheric and lush. The quote below just held such beautiful meaning.
“This place has gathered me up into its pattern, I think, as I wash in the claw-footed bath. It has taken water from my breath and hairs from my head, salt from my tears and iron from my blood and woven me into a tapestry of all the people who have gone before.”
Beth: Excellent choice Nils! Shivers!
I loved how Hayward reproduced moments that pulled you in and made you feel like you were there:
Lights blaze all along the shore, lanterns and braziers reflected in the dark waves like scattered gold. Music drifts on the air, drums like the heartbeat of some great creature, pipes that could be the cries of sea birds, hands clapping like oars spalling water, voices raised in shouts. It’s a clear, crisp winter night, the stars blazing above and I breathe in deep, woodsmoke scratching my nostril along with wet sand, sweet, hot apples, meat roasted over flames…
Finally, what were your overall thoughts on this one?
Nils: This is a novella you could easily devour in one sitting, yet I preferred slowly letting the story sweep me away, to let Hayward transport me to a place of enchantment where I never wanted to leave. A Midwinter’s Tail is one of those reads that envelopes you in warmth, magic, and the power of stories. It’s truly a tale that leaves you purring with glee.
Sorry Beth but I had to include at least one pun!!
Beth: You and your bloody puns!
A Midwinter’s Tail was such a simple story that left such an indelible mark upon my heart. It’s the perfect gift of heart-warming affirmation, nostalgia inducing story-telling, and the magic of community at festive times. I’ll be making it a Christmas tradition to read this every year with a hot chocolate and my cats. It’s a story I’m genuinely thankful to have had the opportunity to experience.
A Midwinter’s Tail is available now from Sphere Books, and you can pick up your copy on Bookshop.org
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