I never seem to own the books that I would like to have. For most of the 26 years of our book group I would purchase the monthly book. But occasionally, probably after a string of less than inspiring reads, my conscience would get the better of me (trees, shelf space, cost) and I would get the next month’s book from the library. Inevitably (it must be a variation of Murphy’s law), that book would be terrific. Such is the case with Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy which we read as a group in 1994. I remember it as a book of great force (it’s hard to forgetan image of a wheelbarrow, body parts, and lye). I was prompted to look for it on my bookshelf because I just finished reading McCabe’s Winterwood, published in 2006. When I picked up Winterwood, I mistakenly assumed that McCabe had not written anything in between but in fact he had published 5 other novels in between.
I guess my first comment about Winterwood would be: is there an Irish novel that does not have child sexual abuse as its touchstone?
In 1981, on assignment from his paper to write an article about “folklore and changing ways in Ireland,” Redmond Hatch returns to his home town of Slievenageeha and meets Auld Pappie Ned, a 70-year-old fiddler who lives outside of town in a tumbledown shack. To the younger townspeople, Ned is a harmless teller of tales and the keeper of their traditions and customs from the past. In succeeding weeks, Hatch returns to interview Ned and learns more about his own past than he bargained for.
According to the chapter headings, we are following Redmond chronologically for the next 20 years. But at the same time McCabe takes us back to Ned’s youth and to Redmond’s childhood. In McCabe’s hands it is a masterful technique and makes this book a real page turner with the suspense building to a tragic end. All I can say is: if you are a woman married to an Irishman, think twice before cheating on him.