Paraffin Winter is set in Poole in the winter of 1963 and, if you start this novel in a state of ignorance about either Poole, life in the early 60s or, specifically, the bitter, endless, relentless winter of ’63 (the coldest of the twentieth century in the UK), you will emerge at its ending feeling like you lived through it all personally. Painting a sensory landscape with words is a skill I freely acknowledge to be a shortcoming of my own ability as a writer, but it is a skill that Chowney drenches this story in. Long after I have forgotten the plot details of the novel, I will recall the sense of coldness and of the grimy residue left by people’s attempts to warm themselves through this extraordinary winter. The coal smoke; the weekly baths; the empty bottles of Double Diamond lined up alongside Ronnie Delaney’s chair as he nods off in front of a dying fire in the hearth: these and an endless supply of other period details make Paraffin Winter an incredibly immersive experience.
The plot follows first Ronnie and then his girlfriend Jenny through a complicated tangle of events that start with the discovery of a human eyeball during Ronnie’s first post-Christmas 1962 paraffin round. Through the first half of the book, other body parts are discovered and, slowly, the story of a murder emerges. It’s a complicated tale that draws on key political and technological events of the period, all meticulously researched. Paraffin Winter is a novel of many layers, but perhaps the most prominent of these is the issue of social class. This is given particular focus in the second half when Jenny, the daughter of a communist railwayman, has to join forces with Veronica, the wife of a wealthy timber importer, to prove Ronnie’s innocence of the murder. Jenny and Veronica make a surprisingly good team, but rather than sugar-coating this alliance with the over-used gloss of isn’t-it-funny-how-all-people-are-essentially-the-same, Chowney uses it to highlight some of the insurmountable differences in perspective between these two positions. Jenny’s hopes for the future would have made this an optimistic novel had it actually been written in 1963; as it is, the benefit of hindsight from the position of today – where the gap between the world’s richest and poorest is larger than it’s ever been – make it a snapshot of the sad naivety of the post-war period. It’s a point underlined by Veronica’s final action to protect her husband and her way of life.
To be honest, the coming together of all the loose ends in the end did feel a little contrived to me (Catfish Collins’ apparent daily commutes from London to Poole just to keep an eye on Jenny in particular felt rather unlikely). It’s hardly the first time I’ve felt that way about a novel’s resolution, however, and this slight visibility of plot engineering actually did very little to detract from my enjoyment of a book that is ultimately about the qualitative experience of a time and place. If ‘time travel’ wasn’t a category of science-fiction but, instead, a genre of period fiction characterised by such vivid descriptions that you finish it feeling you should be unpacking a messy suitcase, Paraffin Winter would surely be a flagship title for 1963.
Paraffin Winter can be bought in PDF, ePub and Mobi (Kindle) formats from www.paraffinwinter.org.uk, where you'll find a website packed with detailed background information to the period portrayed for your further reading. It's also available from Amazon. You can listen for free to a complete reading of the novel by Chowney at www.podiobooks.com/title/paraffin-winter.