Book Review: “Last Winter” by Carrie Mac

A Cautionary Tale

Zachary Houle
5 min readJan 20


“Last Winter” Book Cover

And now we come to a book that I can’t make heads or tails of. Carrie Mac is a Canadian author who identifies as both queer and a woman who suffers from a form of bipolar disorder, but her treatment of a character in her novel Last Winter who suffers from what was formerly known as manic depression is questionable to me. There is perhaps a point to this. By writing a character who suffers from both bipolar disorder and alcoholism, Mac could be trying to lift to the world how unfairly such people may be treated in mainstream society. However, it could also be said that Last Winter is a novel that perpetuates stigma among those who suffer from mental illness — which I hope is not an unfair comment, especially given the fact that the author may be writing, at least in a fictional sense, from her own experience. Thus, I’m not sure what to think about this book. Does it perpetuate shame, or does it seek to banish it from the society of able-minded people? I’m not sure. That all said, I can only assume that Mac was operating from a place of good intentions in writing this book given the circumstances. I hope the author isn’t writing about any possible self-hatred she may harbour as a person with mental health challenges. People with such ailments can lead productive lives, and I know this from intimate experience working with a friend who suffers from bipolar disorder. I worry that some who read Last Winter may not draw the same conclusion — at least those who have closed minds.

The novel is set in a fictitious small town in British Columbia called Casper during January, and the story centers around a family that is being ripped apart at the seams. Fiona, the mother, is the said alcoholic and bipolar sufferer who is presented as a less than capable parent: while on a Christmas holiday the year before when the book is set, we learn that she has sex with the male best friend of her husband, Gus. Gus and Fiona are fighting all the time, and we learn that Gus is planning to separate from Fiona and take their eight-year-old daughter Ruby with him. Likewise, Fiona has plans to return to her native England with Ruby and never return, too. Ruby, in the midst of this, suffers perhaps from autism as she is selectively mute: she rarely talks and then only to people she trusts. In any event, everyone’s lives are upended as Gus — a guide in the mountain country behind Casper — takes a group of children, including his daughter, on a school field trip to a cabin somewhere along the avalanche line. Of course, disaster strikes: an avalanche kills five of the children and possibly Gus. Ruby escapes but returns to the mountain alone to find her dad while Fiona grapples with the potential loss and the additional responsibilities of parenting while dealing with a manic episode.

As you can tell, this is a very depressing book. It’s strangely being released around the most depressing time of the year, towards the end of January, when Christmas lights have been taken down and cold, long nights await Canadian society. I guess you could say the timing might be perfect, but readers may want to be aware that this is not a fun, escapist read. It is quite challenging. The main reason is that most of the main characters — Ruby excluded — are presented as unlikeable characters. Ruby, though, is a bit of a cipher because she largely doesn’t talk, so we only know what she’s thinking when the novel shifts to her point of view. If spending time with characters who fight relentlessly appeals to you, then Last Winter will be your go-to book.

The novel is also problematic because Fiona is presented as a sexual deviant — even though it’s true that some with mental illnesses can suffer from risky sexual health practices — and some of her fantasies may leave readers with a bad taste in their mouths. There is also a lot of focus on the exchange and expulsion of bodily fluids by the characters. This I am of two minds. While I’ve longed for novels that mirror human existence as closely as possible and acknowledge that we all pee and poop, reading about it incessantly is a bit of a struggle. At one point or another in Last Winter, a character is off doing their business in the woods — if you know what I mean.

Thus, I don’t know what to say about this novel. Is it a good book? I thought it wasn’t, but that doesn’t mean that someone else might read this and take something important from it — if not quite outright like it. Opinions are like bum holes, after all: everyone’s got one. I can only give my opinion as a reader who has been sifting through books and reviewing them for some 20 years now. Whether that counts for anything or not is for the reader of this review to decide. However, I did wish that Fiona was presented as someone who had the potential to be more redeemable as a wife and a parent, as opposed to someone who was mired in personal problems and baggage. I wish this book had been more explicit in showing readers that people with mental illnesses are not always troubled and running afoul of their neighbours all of the time. That said, I think I can understand why Fiona is shown in a certain negative light. Perhaps the author is trying to illustrate to readers how she may have been treated as she grappled with her disease — but I can’t read minds so there is no way I can be certain of that. Thus, I don’t know what to say about this book. While I think I can say Last Winter was not my cup of tea, personally, it may be of use to someone — even if only as a form of emotional catharsis for the reader (if not the writer). It is a brave book, especially given the author’s background. We need more books from such people. However, this is also not an easy read. For those reasons, I can say that I’m glad the book exists but readers should proceed with caution. After all, it is a cautionary tale about the support some people need just to make it through tragedy. Whether or not that sounds appealing is entirely up to you in the end.

Carrie Mac’s Last Winter will be published by Random House Canada on January 24, 2023.

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Zachary Houle

Book critic by night, technical writer by day. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.