The very first post on the KfC blog was a review here of McCabe’s The Holy City, one of my favorite reads from 2009. McCabe is Irish, but not the Irish of the “troubles” — he comes from the Irish of the Celtic Tiger, albeit with references back to the troubled past. Last year’s book was a very interesting study of a society in economic transition and provoked comments from trusted sources that said WinterWood was his best book — it has been sitting on a shelf awaiting winter for some months. I am glad that I finally got to it.
Redmond Hatch has been a wanderer all of his life, seeking some kind of destiny, and has wandered into media (which was my trade when I had a day job). He has returned to the “mountainess” territory of Slievenagheea (these are mountains if you are Irish, they are hills to those of us in the shadow of the Rockies) and has stumbled into an acquaintance with Auld Pappie Ned, a fiddler who has some local acclaim. Hatch is on assignment for the Leinster News, a not very good newspaper, and it is his first visit home in some years:
And was more than glad that I did, as it happened, for quite unexpectedly it turned out to be festival week, with a ceilidh starting up as I drove into town. On a crude platform in the square a slap-bass combo was banging away goodo, with a whiskery old-timer sawing at his fiddle, stomping out hornpipes to beat the band. He must have been close on seventy years of age, with a curly copper thatch and this great unruly beard touched throughout with streaks of silver. He slapped his thighs and whooped and catcalled, encouraging anyone who knew it to join in the “traditional come-all-you”!
That is the second paragraph of the book and it is author McCabe’s invite into the volume. If you are willing to come along for the ride, please join in — if not, discard the novel now and move on to something else. The fiddler is Auld Pappie Ned, who may or may not be real and may or may not be related to Redmond. He has stories to tell and he tells (and sings) them but one of the challenges for the reader is to figure out just how much of what he tells (sings) is real and how much a figment of his, or Redmond’s, imagination.
It is convenient to describe books like this as centring on an “unreliable” narrator and then focus on that unreliability. I think that is a mistake with this book — Redmond is a narrator who does have a clouded memory, not just of what happened, but also with his own part in it. He is not so much unreliable as uncertain and part of the reader’s journey is to help figure out how to deal with that uncertainty.
It doesn’t just involve Auld Pappie Ned, it also concerns his love affair and marriage with Catherine Courtney, a liaison that eventually produces a child, Imogen. We know early on that the relationship has dissolved, but don’t know why since we read about it only from Redmond’s point of view — and we know we can’t trust that. And we become aware of his obsessiveness with Immy. Midway through the book, Auld Pappie contemplates his own failed relationship as he and Redmond share some “clear” (moonshine):
Oh, sure, once upon a time there was a little sweetheart I had a dalliance with all right — a lovely little girl by the name of Annamarie Gordon, as I recall. And I have to admit I might have been that little bit soft on her. But sure what she want with an old mongrel the like of me? In the end, anyway, Redmond, she went off and married a doctor. Lives in England or someplace now, I hear. But a lovely girl she was all the same. Now where in the divil did I put that jug of clear?
It was a masterful performance and there was no doubt about it. He could simply, effortlessly, run rings around me. And I know that, although maybe it’s not something to be particularly proud of, there have been many times since that day I called to the house and collected Immy when I would have given anything to have possessed even a fraction of Ned Strange’s formidable resourcefulness. The tiniest percentage of his linguistic dexterity, the meagrest portion of his adroitly evasive, exculpatory strategies.
Auld Pappie spins yarns for Redmond. And Redmond spins yarns (perhaps not quite as convincingly) for himself, those around him and we readers. And McCabe spins yarns that we are free to believe — or to reject. Incidentally, the sentence fragments and the abrupt and unexplained change of voice in that quote are also typical of McCabe. An important aspect of his style is to maintain an uncertainty not just of what is real and what is not but also just where you are as a reader at any given time. It is somewhat disconcerting at first, but becomes a worthwhile part of the experience once you get used to the technique.
The Winter Wood of the title is this novel’s version of a Greek temple, where all the conflicting streams come together. As in The Holy City, McCabe sets this novel in the expanding Ireland that is, finally, joining the global economy and that is a very important thread for the book — the contrast between traditional and modern worlds is every bit as important as the contrast between faulty and realistic memory.
It is to McCabe’s credit that WinterWood would fit a number of genre descriptions. In one sense, it is a thriller (people do die in this book). In another, it is an “Irish” novel, exploring how the changing world affects those who live there. And for those readers who are interested in “unreliable” narrators, Redmond is as unreliable as you can get.
Above all, however, WinterWood is a good read. McCabe creates interesting characters, puts them into even more interesting situations and ends up with a highly readable volume. He is probably capable of better work, but that judgment in no way is a negative reflection on this novel.