Monday, September 14, 2009

the last book I read

Winterwood by Patrick McCabe.

Redmond Hatch is a journalist. He's also an Irishman, hailing from the (presumably fictional) settlement of Slievenageeha in the mountains of mid-Ireland. As the book opens in 1981 he's back in Slievenageeha interviewing geriatric fiddle-player Ned Strange for a magazine feature.

Later Redmond relocates to London with wife Catherine and daughter Imogen, and reads in an Irish paper that Ned Strange has hanged himself in prison after allegations of the abuse and murder of a young boy. This prompts further recollections of their earlier conversations, including the suggestion that Strange murdered his own wife some years before on suspicion of some infidelity, possibly real, possibly imagined. Or maybe he never had a wife and made the whole thing up? Or maybe there's something a bit stranger going on, especially as Redmond's life seems to be echoing certain aspects of Ned's; by this time Catherine has left him, he's drinking too much, working a succession of menial jobs and under a court-imposed ban on visiting Catherine or Imogen after some ill-advised stalking activity.

Then things get more strange: are we to believe the story of Redmond's subsequent turning around of his life, lucrative job in television and marriage to the high-flying Casey? And why has he changed his name to Dominic Tiernan? And what of the allusions to having drugged and abducted his daughter Imogen before this sudden change of fortune?

Later still Redmond is back on his own, working as a taxi driver in Dublin, and, as "Auld Pappie", the genial elder statesman of the cab firm, more like Ned Strange than ever. He reminisces about his childhood in Ireland, and his father's brother, Uncle Florian, another red-haired rural Irishman, and the strange requests Uncle Florian used to make of him while they were out on their country rambles together. He has a chance encounter with Catherine and takes the opportunity of spiriting her away to the magical kingdom of "winterwood" - the same place he took Imogen.

So what are we to make of all this? Ned Strange, Redmond and Uncle Florian seem to be three aspects of the same person - are we to believe they are all real? Has Redmond really murdered and concealed the bodies of his estranged wife and daughter? Was any of the bit about marriage to Casey and the job at RTE true? And what of the strange ending where it's revealed that at least some of the later events were not only made up but also seemingly narrated from beyond the grave?

Search me, frankly. Perhaps the blurred boundaries between the multiple characters are intended to be an echo of Irish shape-shifting legends like the Children of Lir? Certainly there's a general theme of revealing the darkness and desperation behind the lovable old Irish drunken stereotype - the misty soft-focus Guinness advert Ireland where pretty red-haired colleens cycle down country lanes past strapping muddied young men with hurling sticks over their shoulders to a murky pub where some bearded fiddler saws away while the landlord leads a white horse out of the back room. But what of the toothless old guy in his regular seat in the corner? He's in every day, chasing down his pints with the occasional whiskey, always a smile for the young ladies, a wealth of yarns about the old country, and how old Willie O'Flaherty once punched a cow to death after a three-day drinking marathon. What's his story? Chances are it may not be as jolly as you'd think.

Winterwood won the Irish Novel of the Year award in 2007. And while I'm loath to question their judgment on the matter, or indeed Irvine Welsh's interesting (and complimentary) Guardian review, I have to confess to being left slightly cold by it. The evocation of rural Ireland is well done, but if it's unclear which of the events described is real, or even whether the narrator is real, it's a little difficult to care about what happens. Not that I'm averse to some occasional healthy bafflement, as it's probably good for you, and I'd hate for you to think that I'm turning into some red-faced old buffer in Tunbridge Wells who demands PROPER BLOODY STORIES that tell you WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS GOING ON, as nothing could be further from the truth. Honest.

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