Patrick McCabe is an Irish writer who first came to prominence when his novel The Butcher Boy was shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize. That particular book told the tale of a young boy who descends into madness following the suicide of his mother. I read it when it first came out in paperback, turning the pages with a weird mix of fear and fascination. It was quite possibly the most disturbing book I had ever read at that stage in my life (I was in my early 20s) and nothing I’ve read since has even come close to approaching the profound tragicomedy of that amazing novel written in a searing, hurt-filled voice that still haunts me today.
I loved that book so much that when it was finally made into a film I made a point of seeing a screening at the London Film Festival in which McCabe gave a brief talk beforehand. He was a big, bearded man with such a genial nature that I found it surprising that he could have written something so warped and twisted as The Butcher Boy. (The film, I have to say, is nowhere near as harrowing as the book.)
Many years have passed since my initial love affair with McCabe’s writing, and even though he’s written several novels since, I have not dared read them for fear they would not live up to my high expectations. (Mind you, I did see the film of his novel Breakfast on Pluto at the cinema last year, but only because it starred Gavin Friday, who is one of my musical heroes, and I wanted to know if he could act as well as he can sing. He can.)
What’s all this got to do with Winterwood, I hear you ask. Well, I guess it’s just a long-winded way of saying that when I picked up his latest offering it was not without trepidation, because I was frightened McCabe might just let me down…
Winterwood is about a man called Redmond Hatch who falls in love with a much younger woman, marries her, moves to London, has a child and then gets divorced and slowly falls apart. A story of our times, perhaps?
But this is McCabe remember, and everything is not as it seems. What would appear to be a rather straightforward narrative about a man’s crumbling marriage is interspersed with another tale about a hillbilly called Ned Strange who lives in remote rural Ireland and runs Saturday morning ceilidhs for the local children. Ned is Strange by name and strange by nature. And Redmond, who is a reporter and once lived in the same remote village, befriends Strange for the purpose of writing a series of newspaper articles about him.
Over time, Redmond’s life becomes so entwined with Ned’s that it becomes impossible for him to see the wood for the trees, and it is only later, with the benefit of hindsight, that he realises that Ned is not the cheerful fiddle player carrying on the much-loved-but-slowly-disappearing Irish traditions of music-playing and story-telling, but is, instead, a deceptively wicked man that should be kept away from children.
Whether it is Ned’s influence or whether Redmond was preordained to slightly lose his marbles is anyone’s guess, but effectively this is what happens as Redmond reinvents himself, first as a television documentary maker and then as a Dublin cab driver.
The entire novel reads like fragments of an unhinged, possibly schizophrenic mind, occasionally lucid and rational, at other times bordering on crazy. This dizzying insight into one man’s descent into madness is aided by a storyline that jumps backwards and forwards in time, so you’re never quite sure where you are in the time-line of Redmond’s life. It’s a clever literary device that keeps the reader on edge and slighly disorientated.
McCabe is also very clever when it comes to withholding information. He never quite reveals enough to let the reader make up their mind as to what is truly going on. You know that Redmond kidnaps his daughter at one stage, but you never really find out what he does to her. You just know he’s invented a place called Winterwood and that he visits her often. It is incredibly creepy and chill-inducing, in more ways than one.
I raced through this book, if only to be done with the weird creepiness of it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. And I still can’t make up my mind as to whether Winterwood is a literary masterpiece or whether it is just plain nutty. What I do know is this: it’s not anywhere near as brilliant as The Butcher Boy. And it could have quite possibly put me off the music of John Martyn for life.