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Book Review: Winterwood by Patrick McCabe

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When he was young, Redmond Hatch came down from Slievenageeha up in the mountains, leaving his country ways behind him. Now, he's returned, entranced by the folk tales told him by old Ned Strange, about days gone by and ways left behind. Each time Redmond returns home to his doting wife Catherine and beloved daughter Immy, he brings a little of Ned back with him — until he finds himself with no choice but to bring them with him to the winterwood in Slievenageeha.

I was upset by the way Winterwood seduced me. I did not want to be reeled in by Redmond and his elliptical storytelling because I knew that, between the lines, he was telling me stories I didn’t want him to be able to tell. I wanted to believe the surface of Redmond’s life, that he and his Catherine (and, later, his Casey) were blissfully happy, with no hand ever raised from husband to wife. I wanted to believe that winterwood was an impenetrable castle where loving parents and daughter Imogene barricaded themselves against the attackers without. Perhaps Redmond would have lost his life in the battle, but such a death would be preferable to the slow drip of madness that leaked out from every sentence Redmond spoke to me.

McCabe’s writing is frantically obtuse, whizzing past key story elements while returning to haunting images that seem to stop the narrative dead in its tracks. As Redmond stopped to puzzle over these recurring memories, so did I join him, and momentarily stopped trying to solve the mystery. There’s a scent – what is the scent? – and Portobello – when did he live there? – and, most enigmatic of all, there’s Ned Strange, mountain man, storyteller, demon. None of Redmond’s dealings with Ned make any sense at all on the surface, because McCabe masterfully manipulates the space between reality and fantasy and confuses the living with the dead. Ned stalks Redmond at every turn, and drives Redmond’s telling of his own story, infusing it with his own.

Winterwood asks to be read quickly. It’s a slim volume, with few words on the page, interspersed with songs and poetry in English and in Gaelic. And that’s how it tricks you, forcing itself bonelessly down. Read it quickly and pretend that every page does not foretell the indigestion you’ll have later, the nightmares and the screaming.

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