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‘Winterwood’, Patrick McCabe, The Independent On Sunday

‘After reading this book you might feel like a thorough wash, a stiff drink and a night watching The Office.’

The claustrophobic ‘Bog Gothic’ world of abuse, crushed hope and violence in McCabe books like The Butcher Boy, Breakfast On Pluto and Call Me the Breeze, is eased by absurdity, hilarity and, sometimes, heroism. But there is no comic breathing space in his new novel, Winterwood. This is a bleak, disturbing book.

The narrator Redmond Hatch, a happily married journalist, returns to his childhood home of Slievenageeha, an isolated mountain valley, to write about folklore in changing, early-1980s Ireland. He meets the wild, cabin-dwelling fiddler Ned Strange. Strange is popular, his music, stories and the children’s ceilidhs he runs keep the past alive.

But on poteen-soaked visits to the decrepit cabin, Redmond comes to know a different Strange, who perhaps murdered his wife for adultery; who, says Redmond’s father, perhaps beat his mother into a brain haemorrhage; who hints that Redmond’s Uncle Florian wasn’t the angel he appeared.

Redmond’s planned memoir of Strange is not the only reason for his visits. Strange is repulsive but Redmond also finds him beguiling, enigmatic, charismatic. Then Redmond loses his job. He moves to London with his adored wife Catherine and they have a baby, Imogen. But when Catherine commits adultery his world collapses. They separate (violence against Catherine is hinted at), Catherine and Imogen returning to Dublin. Redmond fakes his suicide and follows with a new identity.

The novel becomes darker. Redmond learns with disgust of Strange’s sexual assault and murder of a Slievenageeha boy, and subsequent suicide. Strange’s taunting, all too-solid ghost appears to the destitute Redmond, then returns and sexually assaults him. He leaves a photograph of Redmond as a child, taken in a pinewood by Florian.

Traumatised, and rudderless without his family, Redmond begins drinking. He reaches breaking point – and the book its turning point – outside a Dublin church. A voice warns Redmond that if he chooses evil, he must accept the consequences. But he no longer cares and another voice comes. “‘Redmond,’ I heard, softly whispered in the wind, ‘You know you can trust me. I’ll look after you. Till the very last pea is out of the pot, till the angels quit the hallowed halls of heaven.’”

McCabe, too good a writer to identify the voice’s owner immediately or to have Redmond suddenly turn bad, keeps us puzzling. At times Redmond rejects Strange’s visitations as hallucinations, or reiterates his disgust of him, or reaches false dawns of hope. But when he sees Catherine with her new husband, he feels sympathy for the (perhaps) cuckolded Strange, and Redmond’s descent has begun.

The narrative moves on subtly, building through clues and fragments, never tipping over into melodrama, skipping between the present and memories: Redmond’s kidnap of Imogen; his abuse by Florian as a child; Redmond’s Faustian resurrection as a successful documentary maker with a glamorous wife; the final appearance of the now literally demonic Strange.

Ultimately Winterwood is a ghost story, but a troubling one with grim themes: the multiplication of evil; the catastrophic results of failed love. The only hope it offers is that muddling along madly is better than surrendering to evil. But even if you have a strong stomach, after reading this book you might feel like a thorough wash, a stiff drink and a night watching DVDs of The Office.

12 November 2006

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