“Being born, living and dying – it is mayhem, chaos and madness.” -Patrick McCabe
I hadn’t known until last night that Ireland’s literary heritage was “alcohol-based,” but I suppose it must be true since I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth–the horse in this instance being Bobby Flay, newfound resident expert of Ireland, looking resplendent in a bright orange sweater as he traipsed through the emerald isle on his Tasting Ireland special. Perhaps as I struggle through these next few months of writing my thesis, rather than buckling down and studying harder, I shall just drink more and wait for inspiration.
In any case, I know it has been far too long since my last post, but as of yesterday the future looks like it may be much brighter (more on this later) and I will soon have more free time (or less? but certainly less stress and frustration). I’ve been meaning for a while to write some posts about the books I’ve been reading lately, and Flay’s comment last night motivated me to get my ass in gear.
My father gave me Winterwood, Patrick McCabe’s most recent novel for Christmas, and though it is dedicated to Katie McCabe, I assure you that it is another (rest assured, however–there is only one me). The author is also not to be confused with my uncle Pat, who is now deceased, although as I sit here and think about it, Pat McCabe’s novels have been described as dark and haunting, so it would not be too far fetched to think that perhaps they are being written from the grave.
Big changes need bold writers to engage with them, and McCabe has never been shy about kicking away the stones to see what comes crawling out. His new novel, Winterwood, a sustained achievement of often dazzling brilliance, examines the old versus new Ireland conflict. This has been successfully attempted before, not least by McCabe himself, but arguably never pulled off with such enlightenment and finesse as within these pages.
The protagonist of the book is Redmond Hatch, a shape-shifting monster who, like most of them, is all too human. Shape-shifting has been prominent in Celtic mythology, more Welsh than Irish in its associations, though Aoife’s stepchildren, the Children of Lir, were turned into swans in order to banish them (a tale recounted by the Irish folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory). Hatch hails from the Midland mountains of Ireland, and it’s he who narrates Winterwood. Over the years we see this mountain boy move adroitly between the depressed margins of Irish and London-Irish society and the status and acclaim of Dublin’s professional media classes. These transitions are always difficult for a writer to achieve convincingly, but McCabe does it seamlessly, rendering Hatch all the more sinister in the process.
There are problems inherent in dealing with both a shape-shifter and an unreliable narrator. How literally or metaphorically should we take these transformations, and which elements are we to believe and which are we to discard from the troubled Hatch’s tale? The strength of this book is that the quality of the writing largely circumvents any such difficulties, allowing the story to work on several levels.
One of the things McCabe particularly excels at is evoking the quiet, mordant desperation behind the gung-ho positivism of the “craic is mighty” brigade, that coping mechanism of Ireland and the Irish diaspora over the decades of economic and social hardship. Thus McCabe’s sly, good old country boys are scarier than the city hardmen, their homespun joviality often on the edge of lurching into a blood-simple, reductivist cruelty.
Read it and let me know what you think! Watch this recent tv interview with Pat McCabe on RTÉ.