WinterWood, by Patrick McCabe


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I am breaking convention here by posting the title as WinterWood instead of Winterwood, but my look at the cover of the book says that the second “W” is also a capital. These are the kinds of dilemmas that author Patrick McCabe loves posing for readers. And it is only fitting that a novel that requires readers to make some choices about what they believe to be “real” as they explore the content of the book should start with a choice of just what the title is.

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.

10 Responses to “WinterWood, by Patrick McCabe”

  1. John Self Says:

    I think I am one of those who said it is his best book. I think I said that because it his most distinctive book, ie the only one (I’ve read) where he doesn’t adopt a self-consciously ‘quirky’ voice designed to madden the reader as much as delight them. In that sense, Chris McCool in The Holy City was a return to (old) form. The apotheosis of this ‘voice’ is probably Pussy Braden in Breakfast on Pluto, which was shortlisted for the Booker.

    All these books are successful in their own way, and in none of them can I find anything to criticise in his (daring enough) use of chirpy narrative to reveal hideous content. It’s just that when viewed as a body of work, they begin to blur somewhat.

    For what it’s worth, his first two novels in that distinctive McCabe style (and his first two major works – the previous two novels are forgotten) are The Butcher Boy and The Dead School. I would rate the latter as the best of his ‘voice’ books.

    He also wrote a couple of less well-regarded novels after Breakfast on Pluto but before Winterwood: Emerald Germs of Ireland (though this may be more of a story collection) and Call Me the Breeze. I haven’t heard much good said about either of them, but no doubt they are worth reading if you do develop a taste for his more lurid stuff.


  2. Ronak M Soni Says:

    Sounds really interesting. Have you read Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country or Dusklands? They too had this same reality/unreality play, and I loved them.
    Which book would you recommend I start McCabe with? (Not that I’m going to start soon, I have a ten book backlog right now, but maybe next time I go to a bookstore with money in the bank.)


  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: Thanks for exensive comment and overview of McCabe’s work — you know it much better than I do. I do have Breakfast on Pluto on hand and will bet to The Butcher Boy and The Dead School eventually, because I do think he is an author who deserves to be read. On the other hand, “quirky” is a very apt adjective for him — you need to be in the right mood to appreciate his work and I wouldn’t want to read one novel right after the other. What interests me most about him is that I feel he is trying to take the tradition of “Irish” fiction and move it into the modern age. With the two books that I have read, I think he has been successful.

    Ronak: I would pay more attention to John’s thoughts than mine, but I would say start with WinterWood. It isn’t a long read and certainly does keep the action moving. I would not compare McCabe with Coetzee, despite some similarities. Coetzee has more depth to him and is perhaps best at exploring some of the repressive sides of a colonial society. McCabe’s society is in some ways equally repressed, but his exploration of it has a much more “quirky” tone than Coetzee does.


  4. Mary Says:

    It seems appropriate to read your review of WinterWood as we are currently snowed in here in Northern Brittany ( though like the Irish mountains , I’m sure our blizzard would be puny by Canadian standards!). I’m not averse to quirky narrators – Tristam Shandy or Ebenezer le Page – although I agree that perhaps one would wish for a significant lapse between them. I’ve heard good things of McCabe’s books and this one sounds worth following up. I was interested by your comment that he takes the tradition of Irish fiction and moves it into a modern age. Two years ago through the recommendation of an Irish friend I discovered Deirdre Madden whose Molly Fox’s Birthday you reviewed recently. However I think two earlier books of hers – One by One in the Darkness and Authenticity set in Northern Ireland and Dublin respectively lie very much in that tradition of an Irish voice in a modern age and that voice being a feminine one besides.


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: Thanks for the heads upon the other Madden books. Molly Fox did have some of that aspect in it, although not much — I could certainly see where Madden might have paid more attention to it in others. I’ll look out for the titles you recommend because I did like the one novel that I have read.

    Our blizzards might be worse but they have far less effect on living, since we expect them. I just hope your pipes aren’t frozen and the heating is working so that you can settle in and wait out the weather with a good book.


  6. Mary Says:

    Thanks Kevin. Log fire burning and pipes and hot water OK so far. I’m reading an Australian novel called `Seven Types of Ambiguity’ ( bit of a cheeky title) by Elliot Perlman which I found in a bookshop in Brest and which I’d never heard of. Written pre-crash in 2003 and about Australian society in Melbourne, it’s a critique of modern capitalism. A big chunky novel – just right for the weather and I’m enjoying the enforced `house arrest’.


    • John Self Says:

      Synchronicity indeed, Mary. I just before Christmas received a copy of Seven Types of Ambiguity from an Australian journalist who liked it and thought I might like it too. And it had, earlier last year, also been recommended to me by a friend. So I think the time must be drawing near for me to pick it up from the shelves – all 600+ pages of it.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      You two are getting me interested in this book — too few authors attempt this kind of theme and I do have a weakness for Australian fiction. Please keep me posted.


  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve read The Butcher Boy, which I enjoyed but wasn’t impassioned about enough to seek out more. That said, it was his first novel, and from your review and John’s comments it sounds like he improved from there (not that The Butcher Boy was bad, it was well written, it just didn’t speak to me ultimately).

    Lurid and quirky are both good words for The Butcher Boy, certainly.

    I may look back into him, either this or The Holy City I suspect would be good places to start. Ronak, from the sound of it I wouldn’t start with The Butcher Boy, it sounds like he’s definitely done better since.


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I have not read The Butcher Boy, so I can’t really comment on whether McCabe has improved — my impression for reading other reviews is that he has. I do find that his novels are reader friendly, despite some of the quirky phrasing. Characterization is not really his strong point but there is enough plot and reportage (quite good reportage, actually) to move the novel along.


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