Winterwood by Patrick McCabe

Entranced by the folk tales of an old mountain man, and repulsed by the same man’s grisly crimes, Redmond Hatch struggles to narrate the events which led him to bring his beloved wife and daughter to winterwood.

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, and 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, few words on the page, interspersed with songs and poetry in English and in Gaelic. And that’s how it tricks you, forcing itself down bonelessly. 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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