A Midwinter’s Tail

Ah yes, it is that time of year when the entertainment industry pumps out vast quantities of soppy seasonal material. I’ve never felt any particular desire to watch Hallmark Christmas movies, or any other Christmas movie for that matter (and yes, that does include Die Hard). So what on Earth tempted me to pick up a copy of A Midwinter’s Tail by Lili Hayward?

Well, cats obviously. Also I know the author, and have liked the work she puts out under one of her many other pen names. Plus the blurb mentioned Cornwall.

Reader, the book is not set in Cornwall, it is set somewhere even better.

The Phoenicians, and later the Romans, knew of a large island off the coast of south-west Prydain. The Romans called it Scillonia insula, the Island of Scilly (or possibly Sulis, the same goddess who gave her name to Bath). It was a useful stopping off point on the tin route to Cornwall. This much we know from archaeology and Roman sources.

But the people of that island failed to pay proper respect to the god of the sea. Whether you call him Manannán mac Lir, Manawydan fab Llŷr, Poseidon or Neptune, he is an angry god who is merciless to those who offend him. And so much of the island was drowned. Nowadays it is known as the Islands of Scilly, or Lyonnesse, the drowned land. The ferry service from Penzance to Hugh Town uses a ship with a specially shallow keel to allow it to navigate the drowned lands without bottoming. (And yes, sailors, that does make her roll awfully in the swell off Land’s End.)

Hayward picks up on a Cornish folk tale version of this story, involving a sea goddess called Morgelyn (“Sea Holly” in Cornish) and her cat, Murr.

There’s no actual island in Scilly called Morgelyn. Nor is the wealthy family that owns much of the land there called Penhallow. The family in question is much wealthier than that, because most of Scilly is part of the Duchy of Cornwall. But don’t let these things spoil the story.

There is a holiday cottage on Scilly called Morgelyn. It is up on McFarland’s Down, where I spent a happy couple of weeks for several summers years ago. Also Morgelyn is popular girl’s name amongst the Cornish.

The story is one of a young woman struggling to survive in the highly competitive environment of London office life. One December she receives a letter from her godfather, a Scillonian painter whom she hasn’t heard from since she was eight. The envelope includes a key, and the message in the letter is simple: “take care of her”. A little inquiry reveals that godfather Davy is ill in hospital and may not live; his pet cat, Murr, is alone in his cottage on the beach on Morgelyn. This is odd, because Mina remembers Murr from her childhood holidays on the island, and the cat wasn’t young then.

What follows is classic Christmas movie fare, in which Mina makes a dash to Morgelyn to carry out her dying godfather’s wishes, has trouble with the locals, discovers some dastardly goings on, discovers some truths about her past, and eventually puts everything right. It is a solid goal tear-jerker. Someone absolutely should make a Christmas movie of it.

Note to American women – you should no more marry someone with a cottage on Scilly than you should marry someone who has a castle in Scotland. The weather is awful much of the year. You’d hate it. Though the cottage on Scilly is much more likely to have a roof.

So yes, it was all very predictable, but it was well done with some lovely descriptive passages. Also there is a nicely diverse cast. I’m particularly fond of Paola, the very efficient office manager who is the only nice person at Mina’s place of work.

As and when I win a lottery, I will take Kevin to Scilly in the summer. We’ll get to sit on quiet beaches, eat cream teas and delicious fish, peer into rock pools and peer at seals, and in the evening we’ll sit out in the iron age village on Halangy Down and watch Lleu Llaw Gyffes lay his spear across the sea. Until that time I shall have to rely on books like A Midwinter’s Tail to remind me of that magical place. Thank you, Lili, that was beautiful.

book cover
Title: A Midwinter's Tail
By: Lili Hayward
Publisher: Sphere
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
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