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3.9 out of 5 stars14
3.9 out of 5 stars
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 May 2014
I have always thought Patrick McCabe’s ‘The Butcher Boy’, published in 1992, to be one of the great novels of the late 20th century. I have been less impressed by the author’s other books although his voice has always remained uniquely disturbing. This is certainly true of ‘Winterwood’, published in 2006, which plays with time, character and identity in a feverish mind-bending manner. It says much about McCabe’s ability that he remains in control of the fragmentary events described in this remarkably bleak novel.

The narrator, whom we soon come to realise is distinctly unreliable, is Redmond Hatch, Red, born in the rural backwaters of the Midland mountains of Ireland. His life, or rather lives, takes him from the village of Slievenageeha to Dublin and then on to the urban sprawl of London. Early on we meet the fiddler, Pappie Ned Strange, never short of a story or a tune, which charm adults and, quite naturally, leads to their suggesting that he teach their children about Irish folklore, to play the violin or entertain them by organising ceilidhs. With this knowledge it is pretty clear where McCabe’s story will take us.

Hatch first meets the old man when he is writing an article for the Leinster News about ‘Irish folklore and changing ways in Ireland’. He listens to Pappie’s stories, including those about his own father and his Uncle Florian, in the latter’s tumbledown shack whilst sharing glasses of potcheen. For a journalist he seems surprisingly reluctant to ask any questions. Hatch is married to the much younger Catherine, with whom he had fallen in love at first sight and the birth of their daughter, Imogen – Immy, is the happiest moment of his life. However, McCabe has little interest in describing a rewarding relationship but to say much more would be to spoil the book.

Suffice it to say that Hatch and Pappie have much in common, a situation that unfolds as we follow the ups and downs of the former’s life, his relationships and his interactions with his wives and children. The reader gradually learns more about Hatch’s childhood and, at first, is gratified that he has succeeded in transforming his life and making good but then the reality of his fragmentary story begins to dawn. The inside of Hatch’s head is a very murky place and the author demonstrates an unfailing ability to make the reader’s skin crawl as he describes Red’s determination to reinvents himself as a prize-winning documentary maker and then as a cab driver.

Gradually we realise that McCabe’s world is subject to change and transformation, of time, place, name and in the chapter titles, which initially seemed to a means by which the author guides the reader through the various levels of his story. The author’s ‘helpful’ chronologies are equally unreliable. To reinforce this lack of certainty, McCabe has the fiddler tell Red that ‘hatch’ is Gaelic for ‘strange’. I knew exactly what was happening, how McCabe was moving me from the real world into one of fantasy, but his writing compelled me to continue. His suggested associations of such items as a dead bird, a bar of chocolate, a mildewed book and the My Little Pony in the toy box will undoubtedly return whenever I come across them and make me remember this book. That is the effect of a writer at the height of his powers.

There are elements of extreme disorientation and madness, and the author accentuates this by holding back information, just as Red and Pappie do. Winterwood itself comes to mean more than a make-belief location as it gradually coalesces around the Red and the reader. The more that Red tries to convince himself that he is in control of his life the more we realise the enormity of what he has hidden away.

In the end, it becomes clear that childhood damage has affected what happens to Red later in life. Hardly novel, but McCabe chillingly reinforces this idea. Perhaps my recollections of ‘The Butcher Boy’ are polished by time, but I still feel that, good though this book is, it does not quite match up to the earlier book. I have read somewhere that the author’s novels have created the genre ‘Bog Gothic’. It is certainly difficult to envisage any other writer besting him. This is not an easy read but it is a worthwhile one even if it remains difficult to work out just how far the author has managed to manipulate his reader.
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on 28 January 2013
This book has a confusing beginning which could easily put somebody off reading it. It has interesting twists and turns. Very readable. Somewhat unpredictable but well written with great character descriptions.
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on 26 April 2010
In Winterwood Patrick McCabe once again dances arount the edges of reality. His constantly unreliable narrator, some-time journalist Redmond Hatch, and asynchronous storytelling leaves you guessing for much of the ride.
Starting with the mundane - newly coupled bliss - the descent is into some of the most heinous crimes imaginable. But what a descent and even the ending leaves you perplexed as to what was 'real' and what was the product of, I assume a psychosis. In short a really fantastic read (in all senses of the word). And along the way McCabe manages to critique Ireland's growing pains from 80s economic basket-case to rampant Celtic Tiger (even that seeems a long time ago now).
Anyway, I loved this book, but I accept it is not to everyone's taste. There are no heroic characters, little dialogue and really no redemption, in their place is a complex dance along the cliff-edge of reality.
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Winterwood is a short novel - the narrative of Redmond Hatch. Redmond is an underachiever, having never quite made it in journalism or in various jobs around London. Redmond fails, too, to make family life with his wife Catherine and daughter Imogen quite work. There are little triumphs, but not enough to sustain expectations.

As Redmond's home life and career fall apart, so does his mental health. He is not allowed access to Imogen - although whether this was before or after his own mental deterioration is never quite clear - and this causes his whole life to fall apart. He fakes his own death, traces Catherine and Imogen back to Dublin and tries to reestablish contact with Imogen in the only way he knows how.

Throughout the narrative, Redmond is haunted by Ned Strange, an old and creepy man from Redmond's home village of Slievenageeha. Quite how and when the two first met is, perhaps, ambiguous. But they did meet and Ned's stories start to haunt Redmond. The haunting starts to become literal as Redmond descends into greater madness.

At the same time as the madness develops, Redmond briefly enjoys some success as a television producer and finds a second wife. For a brief while, it seems as though Redmond might turn a corner. But the past starts to catch up again with him, and he finds that the demons are still there. Jealousy, rejection, loneliness and guilt. Redmond's obsession with Ned increases as he believes he is actually turning into Ned.

Redmond's voice is chaotic. He hops about from one point in time to another, making the sequencing and chronology difficult to follow. This is quite important, as it disguises which actions are causes and which are the effects. Despite this, the actual writing is lucid and, in places, of poetic beauty. It is dreamily written without ever feeling overwritten.

It is clear from early on that Redmond has issues, being obsessed with children and their books and toys; he seems to have had a pretty hideous childhood and probably suffered abuse; and he has a strong sense of being an innocent man who has been wronged. This is powerful and disturbing. The flaws in the narration are understandable, but Redmond is never likeable enough for the reader to feel real sympathy for him. I suspect this makes Redmond less likely to attract cult status than Frankie, the star of The Butcher Boy. But at the same time, it probably makes Redmond more credible. The lurid, cartoon quality of Butcher Boy makes way for gothic realism.

This is an unsettling novel, but well worth reading. Just shy of a five star rating.
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on 11 October 2007
This is an involving and very creepy tale from one of Ireland's most original writers. I'm not going to go to great lengths to divulge the plot (other reviewers have already done that!); all you need to know is that it is an intimate first person narrative of a very damaged mind, and it's very difficult to pull back from. Frankly, I'm not going to bother my head over whether or not it's a parable of modern Ireland; it's a compelling read. I would agree with the comment made by an earlier reviewer, to the effect that if you emphatically don't like Patrick McCabe, don't read his books. Whether or not McCabe is a literary genius is something you could argue over for hours, but it's a fact that he's one of the best at what he does out there at the moment. Interestingly, the negative reviewer didn't give any examples of the 'weightier' gothic literature that he claims to prefer. Might that be because he fears exposing his own taste to citicism? Or is it that he simply can't honestly think of any genuine examples?
I'm not sure if 'enjoy' is the right word to use for the reading of 'Winterwood', but it certainly makes an impression.
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on 5 September 2007
Raymond Hatch only wants the best for his wife and child, but is haunted by the ghostly figure of Ned Strange, a famous Irish storyteller, though one recently convicted of the abuse and murder of a child. Raymond has come through a difficult childhood of his own and wants a better life in London, but when his wife and child leave his mind fractures and the reader is asked to sift through the remaining fragments. We meet his mad Uncle Florian, who shares characteristics of Ned Strange, and the motley crew of vagrants and muggers Raymond has to deal with as he freefalls from normal, everyday life. Are the stories of a sudden career in TV to be trusted? Should we believe Raymond's wife had an affair? Or should we take more notice of the glimpses suggesting Raymond could in fact be Ned Strange's alter-ego or, at least, a close relation? When two more people go missing and are feared dead in the Winterwood mountains, the narrative hurtles to a terrifying end. McCabe is a wildly variable writer, capable of great things in 'The Butcher Boy' but seemingly throwing away his talent in recent years. But this, this is the real thing, a perfect, astonishing novel.
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on 17 March 2013
This book is good but a bit weird, it's worth a read as it is only a couple of hundred pages so won't take long.
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on 26 August 2009
Think of a Chuck Palahniuk or Bret Easton Ellis novel set in Ireland's booming Celtic Tiger era and you will not be a kick in the arse away from the premise of Winterwood.Throw in Flann O'Brian's parody of rural irish life in 'the poor mouth' and his version of hell in 'the third policeman'and you are left with an entertainingly disturbing story of one man's descent into evil.Even more poignant when viewed in the light of the recent collapse of the irish economy and the paedophilic scandals of the catholic church. Grimly page turning.
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on 23 November 2006
For me, Winterwood is neck and neck with McCarthy's The Road in the book-of-the-year stakes. In a strange way, it's not dissimilar - a trawl through the belly of hell, except doused in melancholia rather than melodrama. Both books also leave the reader with a strangely elated feeling at the conclusion.

I think it's McCabe's best book. It has the creepiest first person unreliable narrative I've read since Patrick McGrath's Spider (or The Butcher Boy for that matter). Lit crit snobs mightn't like the supernatural elements of course (they had the same problems with Lunar Park), but that's their loss. Presumably they'd prefer the ghosts removed from Shakespeare and Dickens too.
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on 21 December 2006
Winterwood is McCabe's most extraordinary and gripping book yet. I literally was not aware of breathing until I put it down with a sign after reading it in one short sitting. Creepy, insistent, stripped back prose that was edgy and moving and honest. Another complex, emotional and intellectual book - I completely fail to understand people who give this quite brilliant Irish writer bad reviews. He has such an inimitable voice that one wonders why readers who don't enjoy his style read him at all. You can 'not like' a writer but still acknowledge he is a master. I don't consider Dickins recreational reading - so I don't read his books and then slag him off because that would be a stupid waste of time. If you don't 'like' McCabe - don't read him expecting that he will have dropped his unique vernacular for something more homogenised. The person who give McCabe a bad review is the same person who defiled Beckett and Joyce in their day. If you don't get what he is trying to do - it is just possible that thw writer is going over your head.
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