Top positive review
2 people found this helpful
Chilling and manipulative
on 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.