In the first piece of her collection of lyrical essays, The Winter Sun, Fanny Howe defines her task plainly: "This collection of notes and memories is an effort to resolve the question: What was this strange preoccupation that seemed to have no motive, cause, or final goal and preceded all that writing that I did." To answer the question, Howe pulls together a mixture of memoir and musings, interspersing explorations into the nature of faith and the torrential relationship between the past and future with memories of her formative years and stories from the lives of people she found inspirational.
Despite a huge range of topics, Howe manages to wrangle her various recurring themes into a fairly cohesive, remarkably crafted whole. Her ability to draw connections across an expanse of events and thoughts impresses, as does the way in which she mines those connections for meaning. The culmination of this intricate structure comes in a section titled "Waters Wide" which includes the only full poem in the book — one that touches upon almost all of Howe's themes. Reading the poem, one realizes that the roving path of the collection — which at times seems lost in its own digressions — offers a guide to the poem, which, in turn, functions as both a window into Howe's poetic psyche and a reflection of the knowledge aggregated in the book.
What makes The Winter Sun sometimes frustrating to read, though, is Howe's refusal to analyze rather than simply reflect. When discussing theories of time, self-identification and reflection, her conclusions often read like platitudes from a survey course in humanities. Howe does not really engage with the theoretical ideas she floats; rather, she takes advantage of the dreamy quality that affixes to a philosophical idea when glanced at from a distance. Because they are not investigated or explained, lines like "The future is only the past recognizing itself at another location" and "People who are destabilized by historical forces are more intelligent than the secure ones who have got the formulas in place" often lack true content. Had Howe steered clear of such window-dressing statements, her work could have been left to speak, clearly, for itself.